May 16, 2022

Becoming a voice for others

Gary Davis standing outside Briarpatch Youth Services
Gary Davis

Gary Davis wants to use his voice, and his experience, to make a more accessible and compassionate health care system for everyone.

Davis, of Madison, is a member of the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s African American Cancer Community Advocacy Board, made up of Carbone staff and citizen volunteers to bridge communication barriers and find equitable solutions to cancer-related burdens in Wisconsin.

His involvement stemmed from being diagnosed with prostate cancer—an illness much more common, and deadly, for African American men compared to other racial groups.

Davis wants to not only highlight the importance of early screenings and being a strong advocate for your best interests, but also to promote the meaningful work the Community Advocacy Board has already accomplished and plans to do.

“These people are doing some amazing things,” Davis said of the board.

Following passions

Davis was raised in a very tight-knit and supportive family of his mother, siblings, a group of aunts he called “the sisterhood,” three uncles who played a big part of his life and a host of cousins.

Davis was a bit of a class clown who enjoyed making fellow students laugh – a trait that often got him in trouble but has helped in this moment to keep a smile on his face. Still, he found a mentor in his sixth-grade teacher who took the time to understand him and push him to do better.

Knowing the value of good role models, Davis decided to incorporate that in his own legacy. He currently serves as the youth employment program coordinator at Briarpatch Youth Services, a Dane County non-profit focused on services to help at-risk, LGBTQ, runaway and homeless youth.

Davis says he “creates fishermen,” a nod to the famous proverb about teaching a person to fish, rather than giving them a fish, so they can sustain themselves.

“I help kids find a job which in turn gives them a purpose,” he said. “I want to teach them how to fish.”

Aside from his work at Briarpatch, Davis also is an independent music promoter who organizes shows mostly on his own but has partnered with larger music companies like Frank Productions and True Endeavors. He has always had a strong connection to music and loves the energy and excitement coming from the crowd at shows.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “You’re creating a moment for people they will have for a lifetime.”

Cancer journey

Davis’ first experience with prostate cancer was when his father was diagnosed with the disease.

He felt fortunate to reconnect and spend more time with his father before he passed away. He describes himself and his father as two peas in a pod and credits his father with part of the reason he fights so hard to bring awareness to prostate cancer.

A few years after his father passed away, Davis said he noticed troubling symptoms and abdominal pain. After frustrating experiences with his former primary care doctor, his symptoms became severe enough that he sought treatment at an urgent care clinic. That led to his own prostate cancer diagnosis.

Davis was shocked by the news: he was only in his 40s.

“It had been three years before that we buried my father, and he was quite a bit older than me when he was diagnosed,” he said.

Davis then started treatment at UW Carbone with Dr. Douglas McNeel, with whom Davis found a good rapport and trust. Davis also had strong support from his brother and sister-in-law, who went with him to every doctor’s appointment and moved him into their home while he was going through chemotherapy.

Davis’ brother works in the medical research field, and his sister-in-law is a nurse, so both were trusted advocates who could ask the right questions on his behalf.

“That was the greatest thing about having my brother and sister-in-law help advocate for me,” he said. “I could now focus on my fight.”

The average age that men are diagnosed with prostate cancer is around 65, and routine screening is generally recommended for men age 50 and older.

However, for African American men and those with a family history of cancer, McNeel said it’s important to be vigilant at younger ages.

“Gary was in his 40s when he was diagnosed, so he was 20 years younger than average,” McNeel said.

Prostate cancer symptoms are very subtle in early stages. The most common early indicator is more frequent urination. Physicians often use a blood test screening to determine the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is in a patient’s blood, and if levels are high a biopsy is still needed to conclusively diagnose cancer.

Community outreach

Realizing the need to address disparities and increase community engagement, UW Carbone piloted a Community Advocacy Board specific to African American cancer research and priorities.

The board is committed to reducing the burden of cancer among African Americans, while honoring the contributions of African American communities across Wisconsin.

“The purpose is to create bi-directional communication between the Cancer Center and the community,” said Joshua Wright, community project coordinator for the Cancer Health Disparities Initiative at UW Carbone.

Wright said the board’s work is continuously evolving as members talk more and expand their reach with people in the community.

Among their many goals are normalizing conversations about health care, raise awareness of cancer prevention screenings and share information about the cancers most prevalent for African Americans.

They’re also focused on building trust with medical research and increasing participation in clinical trials. A historic lack of diversity among clinical trial participants has led to disparities in how effective some cancer treatments are for African American patients.

Davis looks forward to meeting with board members because of their shared passion and the strong sense of community and friendship they’ve developed.

“The board feels like home to me,” he said. “We talk and it’s like no time has passed.”

Davis added Wright and other Carbone staff have been a trustworthy resource for community members to ask questions or help navigate resources. Davis said these connections are especially valuable to those who feel intimidated or dismissed by the health care system.

“They can speak the language of health care and can make connections to the right people,” he said. “If you need something, they will help you.”

Both Wright and McNeel praised Davis’ commitment to community advocacy, especially with how well-known Davis is locally. Wright said having passionate community members like Davis is a crucial part of making outreach work successful.

“His relationships and his effect on people count for so much,” Wright said. “It’s a ripple effect. People know Gary and will lean into what he says.”