During the 2018 Bike to Beat Cancer, William Cohen and his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother pedaled through the “Mile of Silence” – a stretch of the route where riders can reflect on the cause and memorialize those lost to cancer. Along the way, yard signs offered solace and information.
One statistic caught William’s attention: 1 out of 2 men will experience cancer. Then age 49, William found himself considering those odds.
“Dang, 1 out of 2 of us is going to experience cancer,” he recalled thinking.
He immediately thought he wouldn’t be the person experiencing cancer.
Three years later, William’s journey regularly brings him back to that moment, to those thoughts. Only a few months after that ride — William’s first Bike to Beat Cancer after purchasing a bicycle — a Norton Cancer Institute physician diagnosed the Louisville native with stage 4 prostate cancer. But he hasn’t stopped pedaling and pushing since, with a plan to bike 100 miles Sept. 10 in this year’s Bike to Beat Cancer, just like he did in last year’s event.
“There’s a mantra we have that my mother would say,” said William, whose mother, Leslie, and aunt both experienced cancer. “There’s ‘No quits in Cohen.’”
He never quite went around telling people he had cancer. A big part of his story is how much he kept the diagnosis and treatment to himself — not out of embarrassment or disappointment. The Waggener High School and Eastern Kentucky University graduate is just a doer — he simply wanted to get on with the doctors’ attack plan.
Now, having just passed the three-year anniversary of his diagnosis, with a recent scan coming back with “no disease detected,” William finds himself speaking up about the importance of getting regular checkups and keeping a close eye on one’s health.
“Everybody handles it differently,” William said. “I handled it in a private way, but if I tell my story, maybe I can help somebody in their process.”
William, who is Black, saw another jaw-dropping statistic.
African American men have about a 15% chance of developing prostate cancer compared with about a 10% chance for white men, according to the National Cancer Institute. African American men are also more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive disease.
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When a high school friend who maintained an active lifestyle as a basketball trainer was recently diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, it hit home for William. His friend thought he was so healthy that he never visited the doctor.
William said he kept regular doctor’s appointments, yet still developed cancer. He wants others to have the opportunity for successful treatment like he’s had.
“The fact that it’s more prevalent in African Americans — I want to get in front of them and talk to them about early detection so they can get in those doctor appointments even when they’re thinking they’re healthy,” William said. “There’s stigma in the African American community about going to see the doctor. But there’s no discrimination when it comes to poor, middle-class or wealthy — cancer affects everybody.”
William has worked a lifetime in sales. He founded and ran Smoothie Q and two frozen yogurt shops in Louisville, and he now works as an area sales manager for an automotive marketing firm. (His wife, Stacy, is a director in the care continuum department at Norton Healthcare.)
William also is starting a bourbon brand, and its philanthropic arm will focus on educating African American men about prostate cancer, its detection and diagnosis.
“I want to pivot the passion for bourbon right here in Kentucky to align with what’s going on in my community,” William said.
That’s where the cycling comes in, too. In addition to chemotherapy, doctors originally prescribed a treatment to effectively crush William’s prostate cancer by robbing it of testosterone. The treatment was successful, but the loss of testosterone flattened William. He would ride hard with his cycling group, then be stuck in bed for a few days after the outing.
Slowly but surely, William built his strength back through perseverance and determination. He got to the point, he said, “where you don’t fear the pain.”
“Bike to Beat Cancer and riding my bike is like riding to live,” he said. “I just go hard. There are no off-days. Tomorrow is not promised. I live with it, as there is no cure for stage 4 prostate cancer. Being told ‘no disease detected’ [on my last scan] is due to my mustard seed faith and God’s grace.”
There is no quit in Cohen.