Prostate Cancer Comedy Reveals Doctor’s Trip to Africa

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Discussing prostate cancer are, from left, Emmy Award winning actor Ed Asner and Dr. Joseph A. Smith Jr., a professor of urologic surgery and the William L. Bray Chair in Urology at Vanderbilt of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

FRANKLIN, TN — A urologist and an actor walk into a theater after a comedy for mature audiences to answer questions about prostate cancer.

That lighthearted approach to a serious problem is prompted by the play, “A Man and His Prostate,” performed by Emmy Award-winning actor Ed Asner.

On stage with Asner after the show, Dr. Joseph Smith of Vanderbilt University Medical Center said the play’s medically accurate, and he’s going to Africa where prostate cancer is common.

“The highest rate of prostate cancer in the world is in African Americans,” said Dr. Smith, a professor of urologic surgery and the William L. Bray Chair in Urology at Vanderbilt. “The reasons for that are not entirely known … It seems there’s some genetic component.”

Smith’s trip to Rwanda is coordinated by IVUmed (International Volunteers in Urology). Its motto: Teach One, Reach Many.

“A Man and His Prostate” at Franklin Theatre was sold out Sept. 16. After more than 20 performances, it was the first time Asner discussed the play and prostate cancer with a urologist for an audience.

“A lot of people think this is about me. It’s about my writer,” Asner said of Ed Weinberger who wrote for Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and co-created “The Cosby Show.”

In Weinberger’s stage play, a man falls ill in Italy where he has surgery down yonder, explained by Asner’s medical lecture with an anatomically correct image on a movie screen.

The show includes photos of Asner reacting to surgery, and telephone monologues like Bob Newhart’s comedy. The play and Asner “created a great deal of humanity and compassion” for people dealing with prostate cancer, Smith said.

Weinberger was a part of MTM Enterprises. It produced “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” for which Asner played Lou Grant. Most MTM shows were shot in Studio City, Calif. Asner’s daughter, Liza, is associate producer at his Quince Productions there.

He and Weinberger “have a book coming out Oct. 11 called ‘The Grouchy Historian’ from Simon & Schuster,” she says.

Asner spoke May 19 in Nashville. He’s a “union man” who endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and, much earlier, freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Asner advocates affordable health care expansion, and IDD Housing Nashville. While president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1980s, he opposed U.S. policy in Central America. He’s Carl Fredricksen’s voice in Pixar’s 2009 animated film “Up.”

“He also did ‘In Vino,’” Liza Asner said of a 2017 comedy thriller awaiting release. “He will be honored at the Hollywood Film Festival [and] he did a … made-for-TV movie playing Santa again.”

Asner’s portrayal of gruff characters masks an affable Hollywood star who lends fame to causes.

“Vanderbilt is one of the highest volume hospitals in the country for urologic surgical procedures,” says Dr. David Penson, chairman of Vandy’s Urologic Surgery Department.

While the frequency of prostate cancer in African American men is established, Smith says “Prostate cancer is common in African men, but statistics about its frequency relative to African Americans are lacking.”

IVUmed’s October mission is to establish “training centers in Africa for surgeons who want to develop expertise in urologic surgery,” Smith said. “We will visit Kigali, Rwanda where there will be surgeons … from … surrounding countries. We will be performing surgical procedures including surgery for prostate cancer and giving talks about cancer screening and treatment considering the limited resources available.”

Cancers in black men tend to be more aggressive, so there’re more fatalities, Smith said. Some clinicians say African American men with prostate cancer should not just be monitored.

Smith is asked if men have more sex, is there a lower chance of prostate cancer. The results of studies are “very inconclusive. Sorry, guys.”

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