Prostate Cancer Survivor Turned Health Advocate for Millions of Men

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Rutgers University-Newark alumnus Virgil Simons (MPA'08) has created an international nonprofit network to provide education and support

By Robin Lally/Rutgers Today

It’s been more than two decades since Virgil Simons was told he had prostate cancer, a diagnosis that defined his life and spurred him to become a health care advocate for millions of men in the United States, Europe, India, Africa and Australia.

“This is my life. This is what I do. This is who I am,” said Simons, 71, a Rutgers University-Newark alumnus who in 1996, a year after he was diagnosed with the disease, created The Prostate Net, a nonprofit organization that works to provide information and connect health care providers to men with prostate cancer and their families.

Today, his organization reaches men in 60 countries around the world. Health education programs have been offered to thousands of men at barbershops and Harley Davidson dealers in the United States and internationally, and its website attracts 18,000 visits a month.

“I always believed that it was important to bring the information to where these men go,” said Simons. “Too many men don’t take personal responsibility for their health. When disease hits them, it becomes a panic.”

It’s an emotion that Simons remembers all too well. He was only 48 when he learned that he had prostate cancer. He was scared. He was angry. He wondered, why me? And he thought he might die.

“Then I said, I’m going to beat this thing,” Simons said. “I’m not going to allow it to control my life. I’m going to take my life back.”

The problem: Simons couldn’t find the information he needed to make an informed decision about what he should do to fight back and win.

“I had been involved in corporate America and there was an insufficiency of information that I thought should have been available to me,” said Simons, a former marketing executive who received a master’s degree in public administration in 2008 from the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University-Newark. “I felt that I had the best resources, good insurance and could get the best doctors but still didn’t feel like I could get the best quality care. If that could happen to me, I wondered what would happen to the average person.”

After undergoing surgery and successfully completing his own cancer treatment, Simons wrote a guide that provided needed resources including organizations, government agencies, support groups, health clinics and patient-friendly information those diagnosed with prostate cancer would need to navigate the system.

But he didn’t think that was enough. While prostate cancer often can have no symptoms for seven to 10 years, if it is diagnosed early it is highly curable. Since African-American men face an even higher risk of death from the disease, Simons, a 22-year survivor, knew he had to increase his outreach further.

For the past seven years, Simons has made his home in Barcelona, Spain, in part, because the organization was expanding internationally and he was traveling more often between the United States, Europe, India and Africa. When he is not doing a radio health program in Barcelona, it is not unusual for Simons to be in Prague one month giving a workshop to the pharmaceutical industry on patient advocacy, and the next meeting with doctors at a medical center in Naples.

Simons serves on a U.S. Department of Defense prostate cancer research program panel that reviews applications for prostate cancer funding, works to engage pharmaceutical companies to partner with researchers and is involved with training advocates making inroads into local communities in Africa that are beginning to offer screening and prevention programs.

His goal is to create better access to health care as he continues to lobby for more funding for prostate cancer and all cancer research.

“From my standpoint, a cure is going to be very difficult,” Simons said. “I hope that we will be able to look at cancer like we look at diabetes and high blood pressure as something we live with and manage.”

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