These days Rudolph Walker OBE is probably best known for his role as Patrick Trueman on BBC’s EastEnders. But the actor, famous for many TV roles, has also been an ambassador for Prostate Cancer UK for ten years. Rudolph, now 75, came to England in 1960 from Trinidad and Tobago. A proud father and grandfather, he tells us how prostate cancer has touched his life and his family and why he’s so committed to making black men aware of their increased risk. He also talks about fellow EastEnders character Stan Carter, who died of prostate cancer in the series earlier this month.
“It’s been very hard watching Stan’s prostate cancer story unfold – I’m really sad we’ve had to say goodbye to him. And I’m going to miss the actor who plays him, Timothy West – I class Tim among the greats of British theatre. But I’m very pleased EastEnders has turned the spotlight to prostate cancer like this, because so many men are still unaware of the disease.
“The first time I heard about prostate cancer was when my uncle was diagnosed over 20 years ago. He and his family had migrated to the United States from Trinidad. I spent a lot of time with them before coming to the UK. However, I only found out about his diagnosis after talking to his brother, another of my uncles, in Trinidad. At that point prostate cancer wasn’t really talked about in any detail in the family.
“My uncle lived quite a number of years after being diagnosed. I know he was treated with chemotherapy but I don’t know much more than that. When I’d call, my aunt would say he was having further tests or treatment at the hospital, but it was never a long conversation. He certainly didn’t talk about it – never mentioned the serious nature of what he was dealing with. Neither did I really understand how serious it was until one day I had a call to tell me that he’d died of prostate cancer.
“Since then the disease has had an impact upon my life in many ways. Hardly a month goes by without hearing of someone who has been affected. Either I’ll get a call from Trinidad to say that someone I went to school with has died, or a friend-of-a-friend, or a distant relative. It’s just there in front of me all the time, and not just in Trinidad, but over here as well.
Prostate cancer can often be shrouded in secrecy because African Caribbean men, including me I suppose, see that part of the body as taboo
“I started to learn more about prostate cancer about ten years ago when I was asked to get involved with Prostate Cancer UK. It was only then I found out that if you have a father or brother with prostate cancer you are at a greater risk yourself – no one in my family was aware of this. And I discovered that black men have a much greater risk than white men of the same age. It made me realize how important it is to make people aware of it and I’ve been campaigning ever since.
“I was really thrilled to help out with the Men United campaign this year and it’s encouraging to hear that nearly 200,000 people have taken the Men United awareness test. It means that the message is starting to get through. But now we have to push it even further.
“One of the earlier events I did with Prostate Cancer UK was a cycle ride in London’s East End. I thought it was an effective way of targeting African Caribbean men in their communities. Prostate cancer can often be shrouded in secrecy because African Caribbean men, including me I suppose, see that part of the body as taboo. They don’t want to be examined ‘down there’.
“I think machoism is a characteristic in some African Caribbean men. They will guard their maleness aggressively, saying ‘nothing is wrong with me’. And of course they are thinking about the old story that if you have something wrong with your prostate and you get treated it’s the end of your sex life. Of course this isn’t always the case these days with all the treatments available, but it’s something they can’t bear the thought of.
“I want to spread the word that there is no need for embarrassment. Now we’ve found out that 1 in every 4 black men will get prostate cancer it’s even more important to make them aware of the facts. That’s why I’m so pleased prostate cancer has been featured in EastEnders.
“Unfortunately the character I play in the show, Patrick, is not the sort of man who discusses his health. He is of the generation who are very, very macho and of the view, ‘I’m alright Jack’. Stan Carter was the same. It took him three years to tell his family that he had prostate cancer and he hasn’t really talked to his friends about it. He was reluctant to admit there was anything wrong with him. So he ignored the little symptoms he was getting like peeing more and you can’t ignore that sort of thing.
“Men ought to take their health seriously, not just African Caribbean men, but right across the board. I think each of us should know our body and if things are not quite right – go to the doctor. And if you have a health problem it’s important to discuss it with your partner, your family or trusted friends.
“I try to take good care of my health. I take my exercise - I play tennis. I don’t always win but I give the balls a good whack. And I think laughter is a great recipe for good health. I try to be around people who have a good sense of humour.
“My doctor has told me that many men over the age of 60 are often diagnosed with enlarged prostate and at 75 it is not surprising that I fall into that category. But I follow his advice and have check-ups and PSA tests regularly, and I try not to abuse my body. Over the years there’s wear and tear but generally I feel well.
“I strongly appeal to all black men to look after your health. Find out about your risk of prostate cancer and once you hit 40 or 50, go and talk to your doctor. I also think women need to be aware and urge their men to do this. They stand a better chance of getting through to them, and it’s in their interest because if a man has prostate cancer it affects the whole family. Sadly that’s something Stan discovered too late. I hope his story will help to get the message out there.”
Actor Timothy West, now 80, has had a stellar career on stage, screen and radio. He is currently well loved as grumpy EastEnders granddad, Stan Carter, who revealed back in November that he has prostate cancer. We caught up with him at the launch of our campaign, Men United, Keeping friendships alive, to hear his thoughts on how Stan is dealing with the disease, on friendship and on his own experience of prostate problems.