The shared experience of cancer gives four childhood friends a common goal.
Whish—the broom handle often swung wide, missing the tiny bottle top hurtling through the thick summer air of 1956 New Orleans. The boys would rotate positions and a new batter would step up, according to the rules of “topball,” the baseball-like game they invented. The game would continue, filled with the four boys’ laughter and friendly taunts. Most of the jests came from Ellis, the jokester of the group. He always knew how to get a laugh. Ronald was the biggest, but Benny the most athletic. Preston was always the leader, keeping things from getting too fierce.
Decades later, as men, the four often sat around the table in Preston Edwards’ living room, eating seafood and discussing their cancer treatments.
“It’s not like being in a regular support group where you put a bunch of people who you don’t know together,” Preston says. “With this support group, we didn’t feel awkward; we’d just kid and clown all the time.”
This group could discuss anything, even normally taboo subjects like religion, fear and deep sadness, hard things for these strong black men to discuss openly.
“We’d talk about prayer and getting emotional and crying—and no one would admit to that—and we’d say ‘well, you’re lying,’ ” Benjamin “Benny” Priestley says.
The boys lived in a largely black neighborhood in the Garden District of New Orleans, attending the same high school. Ellis, Ronald and Preston first met in kindergarten; Benny joined the group when they were in seventh grade, playing basketball near the tall brick incinerator that burned refuse all day, every day. They spent most of their time outside, playing touch football, basketball or “topball,” causing the normal mischief of boys loose in a neighborhood.
With this support group, we didn't feel awkward; we'd just kid and clown all the time.
Around middle-age they would rely on each other to get through their illnesses. In their own ways, each took an ‘I won’t let this stop me’ attitude.
“It was a matter of saying ‘you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,’ ” Benny says. “Sometimes the children would fuss at me and say to me, ‘I told you if you stopped smoking, you wouldn’t be in this situation.’ ”
Benny, the first to get a High Fidelity record player, introduced the group to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and others. The 15-year-olds listened in the second room of Benny’s shotgun-style house, smoking furtively. If they were discovered, they moved to Mazie’s Sweet Shop on the corner. They‘d go for their favorite bottled drinks—locally made pineapple, strawberry and root beer—but they’d stay because they could smoke there.
Looking back, none of the four friends could pinpoint what caused their cancers, but that didn’t stop them from guessing. There were many possible causes from their youth; they would puzzle over them often during their talks.
After high school, the boys began to drift apart. Ronald was drafted into the Army, wading through vegetation poisoned with Agent Orange in Vietnam. After bouncing around the country, he ended up back in New Orleans. Ellis was drafted into the Air Force, which helped him get his position in Atlanta with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Benny served in the military before working with a social organization in Portland, Ore. Preston earned an MBA and moved back to New Orleans, where he started his own business. The friends attended one another’s weddings, celebrated the births of all 11 of their children, and stayed in touch, though over time they met less frequently.
“I’d like to put this message out to all the guys I was in the service with and that were exposed” Ronald Bazile says. “Have a yearly checkup, mainly on your birthday—that way you can’t forget.”
Ellis had been keeping a secret since 1995—he had mantle cell lymphoma. He told no one, making excuses for slipping out of work, explaining away his fatigue. He was afraid people would look at him differently if they knew he had cancer. Finally, in 2000, he told his family, and the news filtered through the New Orleans grapevine.
“He had that mentality that he had this horrible disease that he couldn’t figure out where it came from,” says Ellis Brossett’s wife, Joyce. “It was something he was ashamed of. If people knew, they would pity him.”
She adds, with a touch of sadness: “He was kind of hostile with it. It was like, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me, don’t try to treat me differently because I have this dread disease called cancer.’ ”
Preston was the first to realize the surprising truth: By the end of 2001, each of the friends had been diagnosed with a different cancer—Benny had lung cancer; Preston had cancer of an unknown origin; Ronald had prostate cancer; and the three had finally learned of Ellis’ lymphoma.
“It was a blessing that even though I had cancer,” Preston says, “I was going through it with my very best friends.”
After some research, they discovered African-American men had the highest cancer mortality rate, information that stunned them.
“If [cancer deaths] are preventable, we ought to be dealing with preventing those deaths,” Preston says.
That gave the four friends a new goal—to reach out to others, Benny recalls. “Let’s write a book and at least express that concern.”
They struggled to find a publisher. Then Ellis, who had been with his friends at Preston’s annual New Year’s Eve party, died suddenly in early 2004 of heart-related complications of lymphoma. Ronald, Benny and Preston decided to self-publish the book in his honor. When Hurricane Katrina obliterated the New Orleans landscape, only one copy of the manuscript survived the flood. Finally, last April they published their book, You Have Cancer (www.YouHaveCancer.com).
Today, Benny, Ronald and Preston hope the book, which combines the personal stories of the life-long friends with a list of cancer resources, will save lives. The focus is on encouraging black men to get cancer screenings regularly, “but it is important for everyone,” Preston emphasizes.
That’s because, Preston says, when he was in chemotherapy treatment, “the white guy sitting next to me was suffering just as much as me. We were going through the same thing and we probably had the same questions in mind. That was, ‘What is going to happen to me?’ ”