Eleven years ago, Joe Ferrara was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He’d decided to get checked when two friends walked into his comic shop, Atlantis Fantasyworld on Cedar Street, within one week of each other and told him that they’d been diagnosed with the cancer. Both had felt completely healthy and hadn’t noticed any symptoms. One friend survived, the other didn’t.
Before he died, Ferrara’s friend came into the store one last time.
“He was angry. He was just so angry because he felt that his doctor let him down, that his doctor didn’t educate him, that if he’d gotten ahold of this early enough, he would have survived,” says Ferrara. “I saw this man so angry and so frustrated at the end of his life that I said ‘I don’t want to see this ever again.’”
That motivated him to get his own Prostate-Specific Antigen test (PSA)—a blood test that measures men’s levels of the antigen. They caught his prostate cancer early, he got surgery, and has lived free of cancer ever since. But the fact that he hadn’t even heard of a PSA at the time angered Ferrara, now 67, because he knew that other men of his generation were also in the dark—sometimes with fatal consequences.
A year ago, Ferrara sat down with Senior Vice President of Sales at Marvel Comics David Gabriel in San Diego and convinced him that just like Marvel’s pink covers for breast cancer awareness four years earlier, they needed something for prostate cancer.
Gabriel agreed. This month, Marvel will release five comic book covers in blue with a banner at the bottom from the American Cancer Society: Invincible Iron Man #13 and Captain America: Steve Rogers #6 will be in Ferrara’s store on Sept. 7—when members of the Santa Cruz Prostate Awareness Support Group will also be there with pamphlets and information—and a Mighty Thor #11 cover arrives on Sept. 21. All of the proceeds from the comic books will go to the awareness group.
“Our goal here is to save one life. I attribute my life to my two friends who came in and told me about it,” says Ferrara, now a member of the Santa Cruz Prostate Awareness Support Group and board member for the California Prostate Cancer Coalition. “I’m still here because of them.”
Ferrara wants men to be able to discuss their health with one another and stop subscribing to the antiquated idea that they shouldn’t “show any weakness,” he says.
“My generation was not counseled, we didn’t have open dialogue about this stuff,” says Ferrara. “Even so, now society still has this taboo about men. They don’t want to be perceived as not being the provider.”
Marvel Comics offer the opportunity to reach a younger demographic, says Ferrara, with the average comic book reader being between 25 and 35 years old.
Hopefully that will inspire young men to ask their fathers, uncles, and other relatives about their PSA, and for female readers to ask the men in their lives the same. Women, says Ferrara, are raised to be more open with their health concerns.
“Women as a rule at a young age are aware of mammograms and why they need them,” says Ferrara. “There’s a big gap between what women know about their health and what men know. Men think it’s like taking your car to the mechanic: the mechanics going to tell you what’s wrong with your car and they think the doctor says the same thing. But if you don’t ask specific questions, they’re not just going to put you on the rack and do the whole thing.”
In 2009, the U.S. Preventative Services task force came out saying women didn’t need to start getting biennial mammograms as early in life as other cancer organizations like the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging were recommending, which was age 40.
The same task force released a recommendation in 2009 against routine PSA tests.
“Women’s reactions were that they got very angry because women knew the value of getting those mammogram screenings—my wife had a mammogram that caught an early breast cancer for her and she just finished six months of treatment,” says Ferrara. “Men’s reactions were ‘Oh thank God, one less thing to worry about.’”
While it’s true that a rising PSA level can mean different things to different men, says Ferrara, the point is to make all men start to ask the right questions: “It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a man if you inquire about your health,” he says.
Santa Cruz Prostate Awareness Support Group will be at Atlantis Fantasyworld for the release of the ‘Invincible Iron Man #13’ and ‘Captain America: Steve Rogers #6’ on Wednesday, Sept. 7. They will also be at Whole Foods on Soquel Avenue on Saturday, Sept. 10 to hand out information.