Optimism and touching antidotes pervade the new book "You Have Cancer," written by Portland's Ben Priestley and three of his childhood friends from New Orleans.
"This is an open and public discussion about a disease that is usually secret and private," state the authors in their front-of-the-book note. "Our book is about the celebration of life, rather than a doomsday account of our disease ... our story was written to share our experiences."
Talking openly and publicly about such an illness is an anomaly in the Black community, Priestley says.
"African American men do not talk about being sick," the authors point out in their book. "To some extent, this practice may be due to some bizarre gender or cultural taboo that, if you complain too much, you show a sign of weakness."
Priestley and his childhood friends Ronald Brazile, Ellis Brossett and Preston Edwards, break this taboo wide open in "You Have Cancer," which the men self-published two months ago.
"We mention it in the book, but Black men are dropping like flies from this disease," Priestley said, during a recent interview over a cup of coffee at Reflections cafe in North Portland. "As men, we need to be more open about our health. Women know it. They pay attention to their bodies. But men, even if you have a cold, go see your doctor. Don't wait until you're sick enough to need a hospital. Take care of it before it gets bad."
Priestley understands why men sometimes wait too long. Before being diagnosed with lung cancer – and then brain cancer – Priestley believed he was a healthy guy.
"Despite the health episodes I experienced, I honestly believed I was in reasonably good shape," he writes in the book. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I rated myself an 8 because I smoked, have been known to drink over the years and was being treated for high blood pressure."
Cancer, the four childhood friends write, "has declared war on African American men ... it is attacking us, ambushing us, everyday. Very few see it coming – a surprise attack – and usually it's fatal."
The authors decided to fight back as a group, to tell their stories separately and to compile a well-rounded, 60-page selection of cancer information and resources for Black men.
"We have to be smart enough to realize that, if we give cancer an inch, it can destroy us," the men write in their conclusion. "Our mission is to scare you into seeing your doctor on a regular basis. Cancer kills when it invades your body and stays undetected. You want to find it, root it out and remain in 'the land of the living.'"
Eight years after being diagnosed with lung cancer, Priestley, 64, remains in the land of the living.
"It wasn't difficult for me to open up about my cancer," Priestley says. "The best way for me, for all of us, to share our story was through writing."
The father of three grown children, Priestley found quiet time each day to focus on the book and the result is a touching story of a man who isn't afraid to rely on his family, friends and faith to get him through a scary time.
"I knew it could kill me, but I didn't think too much about death," Priestley says. "It was just like any other disease. You fight until you're better."