Third in a three-part series on LGBTQ men’s health.
Corey King isn’t sure when his blood pressure started to kill him. A full-time professor and writer, his life was stressful, but didn’t seem more so than usual. He’d seen some losses — most notably when his grandmother who raised him died, followed by the break up of his relationship. He says his grandmother’s death especially had jettisoned him into a somewhat nihilistic headset. “I was definitely depressed after that,” King says. “I think my attitude was ‘whatever happens, happens.’”
As a Cleveland Clinic study affirms, most men don’t prioritize their health as much as women do theirs. When King got a diagnosis of relapsing/remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in June 2021, he thought he handled it well. He was learning more about the disease and talking to friends he’d met who had MS.
Then in early 2022, he went into crisis — he just didn’t know it. He began to have blood in his urine. He was nauseous a lot. He’d been eating a diet of fast and fried foods because it was easy in the midst of an MS exacerbation. He had headaches. Bad headaches. He was taking Excedrin constantly.
What King wasn’t doing was checking with the doctor to see what might be wrong. He assumed everything was linked to the MS and he would just have to live with it.
Over the years since his grandmother’s death, King says he had gotten his blood pressure checked periodically at CVS and it had run high — 140/90. But he hadn’t gone the extra step to see a doctor for treatment.
Then on March 29th, 2022, “after much prodding from my mother and sister, I decided to visit Urgent Care. My blood pressure was so high, the doctor told me to go to the emergency room.”
A catastrophic blood pressure of 244/144 got King admitted to the hospital where it was determined that he’d had two strokes and a small aneurysm. His blood pressure had propelled him into the final stage of renal failure. “I would have to start dialysis,” he said. “I never felt either stroke or the aneurysm, but I was in a very bad way.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypertension puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in the U.S. More men die of stroke than women. Black men, like King, are more prone to hypertension, and it starts earlier, as it did for him. In 2020, more than 670,000 deaths in the U.S. had hypertension as a primary or contributing cause.
What King and most men don’t know, is that nearly half of men have hypertension, defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg. The CDC recommends a blood pressure below 120/80. Only about 1 in 4 men (24%) with hypertension have their condition under control. About half of men with uncontrolled hypertension have a blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or higher, like King did. Diet, life-style changes and medication can control blood pressure, but knowing this “silent killer” puts you at risk is the first step. And that is a step few men take.
King spent nearly a month in the hospital, getting dialysis, rehab, speech therapy. He left the hospital April 28 in a wheelchair, but 10 months later, taking 14 pills a day and after months of physical and occupational therapy, King says, “I am mobile, except for a cane, still on dialysis, praying for a kidney transplant.”
Most days King says he feels okay, but dialysis still takes a lot out of him. Yet he says he is “full of gratitude” for his survival. He wanted to tell his story to PGN “to educate other men” to be mindful about their health. He has particular concerns for Black men and Black gay men, who he says are often ignored by media outreach on health crises.
King adds, “My maternal grandfather died from a stroke at 56, and I had two at 45 and survived. Every time I get sad or depressed about my current situation, there is a spirit of gratitude thinking about the miracle that is my life.”
King urges men to “get your blood pressure checked. Don’t ignore your body — when it tells you something is wrong, don’t ignore that warning.”
The CDC website offers several pamphlets on Black men and blood pressure control.
For Malcolm Johnson, blood in his stool was common and a warning he ignored for months. Johnson wasn’t sure when it started, but he’d gotten used to it. “Often when I’d have sex, there was some bleeding,” Johnson explains. “I assumed this was normal for anal sex and I honestly never thought I should see a doctor about it.”
A runner and dancer, Johnson said he was “always fit, always healthy.” A vegan since college, “I had a good diet. All the stuff you’re supposed to eat to stay healthy and fight any chance of cancer.”
But Johnson had undiagnosed stage 1 colon cancer. At 32, Johnson was young for the diagnosis, but as a Black gay man, discovered that colon cancer is increasingly common among younger Black men. Award-winning actor Chadwick Boseman was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at 39 and died of the disease at 43. It was Boseman’s death that prompted Johnson — who says “I am just someone who is never, ever sick” — to see a doctor about the bleeding.
Dr. Joshua Goldenberg is an academic researcher in molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania whose work has been published in JAMA and BMJ. He’s also a practicing naturopath in GI medicine, who heads The Goldenberg GI Center. A past President of the Gastroenterology Association of Naturopathic Physicians and a Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Gastroenterology, Goldenberg has lectured across the U.S. and abroad on GI health.
Goldenberg is succinct, “Men need to know about colon cancer. Sadly, despite improvements in recent years, it is still a common and deadly disease. The good news is, catching it early can make all the difference.”
He said, “Colon cancer screening tests are an essential part of men’s health, just like hitting the gym or watching the carbs. Recently there have been some important changes in national guidelines that are important to know about. In average-risk men, screening now starts at 45, not 50. Also, many men are unaware that, while some still consider colonoscopy the gold standard, there are many options available these days such as DNA testing, the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), and even CT ‘virtual’ colonoscopies.”
Johnson was prompted to get a FIT test after seeing numerous ads for them on TV and online. “When mine came back positive, I got a frisson of fear which sent me to the doctor. No question it saved my life.”
After surgery and radiation, Johnson is now cancer free. “It took a year, but I am back to living my life. My advice to other men — especially to other Black men who we now know are at higher risk for this disease — is to do the FIT test now. It’s just a stool sample you do at home. It can save your life. It saved mine.”
Goldenberg affirms Johnson’s advice, “In my experience, many men are hesitant to do colonoscopies and end up dragging their feet and delaying starting screening. Don’t do that. Talk to your doctor. There are numerous options out there for screening. This isn’t something you want to miss. Take control. Get screened.”