'Barbershop Bashes' Help Reduce Health Disparities Through Cancer Screening

October 26, 2023 | 5 min Read

Most people go to their barber for a haircut, and maybe other grooming services too, like a beard trim or shave. But last month, Travis Ray went to his barber to get a haircut and to get screened for prostate cancer — just like he’s been doing for the past 9 years.

Isiah Skinner Jr., owner of Skinner’s Barbershop in Morgan City, La., has been hosting annual Barbershop Bash events since 2013 as a way for men to receive free, preventive cancer screenings and education. He started hosting the events, with the help of the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, at his wife’s urging.

“I always see your health as your wealth,” Skinner said. “It’s very important to host this event, because a lot of fellas don’t go to the doctor, and it gives them an opportunity to check on themselves.”

Over the past decade, more than 700 screenings have taken place in a mobile health unit parked outside his barbershop, and at least five cases of cancer have been detected. Many individuals — like Ray, who was one of his first customers — return year after year.

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    screenings outside Skinner's Barbershop

“My dad had prostate cancer in 1997. I come regularly because of my dad,” Ray said.

“Going for a screening can save your life,” said Clarence Robinson Jr., Isiah Skinner’s cousin, referring to the mobile health unit where screening takes place.

Thanks to a three-year, $2.3 million grant partnership from the United Health Foundation, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center will expand its free cancer screening to an additional 4,500 individuals for prostate and colorectal cancer and provide nearly 10,000 people with community outreach and education about specific prostate and colorectal cancer risk factors and prevention. These screenings will take place at community events — such as Barbershop Bashes — that meet people where they are. The grant also will expand diagnosis and treatment support, and survivorship programs.

“In our ongoing effort to improve survivorship and lessen the burden of cancer, we are grateful for the United Health Foundation's generous grant partnership.  This support will enable Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center to expand access to education and life-saving early detection cancer screenings for prostate and colorectal cancers in communities where it is needed most,” said Renea Duffin, vice president of cancer support and outreach, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. “Together, we are breaking down barriers to care, ensuring that no one faces the challenges of prostate and colorectal cancer alone.”

A new study found African American men have double the risk of dying from low-grade prostate cancer compared to men of other races. That’s what makes screening events like Skinner’s Barbershop Bash so important. Although prostate and colorectal cancers are two of the most common cancers in men, both conditions are highly treatable when caught early through routine screening. And studies show that partnering with barbershops can lead to improvements in African American men’s health by reducing barriers to health care.

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    African American men have double the risk of dying from low-grade prostate cancer

“It’s a safe place, it’s a trusted place, and it’s a place you visit frequently,” said Dr. Kevin Stephens, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare Employee & Individual plans of Louisiana. “We are honored to partner with Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center to help them expand these innovative ways to meet people where they are and bring care to them.”

For Hope Jones, Mary Bird Perkins Bayou regional manager, early detection and education, the screening events are personal. “I have a history of cancer in my family, so if I can just be here in the community to educate someone and save one person, it’s all worth it for me.”

She also stressed the importance of grassroots outreach and local partnerships. “We go out in the community, distribute fliers, and provide reminder cards. Once we’re out and about spreading the word, someone’s going to tell someone else about the services provided for them. And that takes a little bit of pressure off the hesitancy to come in and get screened. Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center is grateful for United Health Foundation’s support to expand services and help reduce disparities in cancer screening and care.”

According to America’s Health Rankings, the state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates of cancer among residents (currently ranked 43 out of 50 states). Offering consistent, low-barrier access to screenings can reduce historic health disparities and improve the health of communities over time.

“I hope the men take advantage of it,” Skinner said.

Ray said he plans to keep coming back to get screened. “This is a benefit that can prolong your life, it’s free, and it’s important.”