Driving for zero

Each September she's a familiar sight at the Orange County Fairgrounds, whizzing by in a golf cart saturated in patriotic bling, while inspecting men's arms for a telltale bandage or cotton ball.

For Orange County resident and Cruisin' for a Cure founder Debbie Baker, the annual (and wildly popular) car show serves two purposes: entertainment and prevention. Her mission is to ensure that every man of "a certain age" who attends the event is tested for prostate cancer — via a simple, free blood test; not the probing digital test that most men abhor.

While not related to Baker, I have a father and a grandfather who are both prostate cancer survivors, and who attend the event each year to have their group photo taken with other survivors. It's a moment of pride and solidarity for them, at one of the world's largest custom, hot rod and specialty car shows for charity. All proceeds benefit the City of Hope's prostate cancer program.

The day includes more than 3,500 cars (including my father's 1968 Mustang, if I know him); more than 200 vendors; live music; prizes; and food.

And free testing, for men ages 40 and older. While the Susan G. Komen Foundation's Race for a Cure events worldwide bring in millions for breast cancer research, the disease often called the silent male counterpart of breast cancer goes largely unfunded and unnoticed.

More men are diagnosed each year for prostate cancer than women are diagnosed with breast cancer, the American Cancer Society reports. Yet the National Prostate Cancer Foundation found that for every prostate cancer drug to reach pharmacy shelves, there are seven for breast cancer; likewise, federal spending on breast cancer research is nearly twice that of efforts to cure prostate cancer. The media also are 2.5 times more likely to report on breast cancer than prostate cancer, reports have found.

For Baker, who lost her husband last year to the disease, this is an outrage.

The Pilot spoke with Baker about her crusade — and 11 years of Cruisin'.

DP: What's new at this year's show?

DB: We have a gorgeous custom Cruisin' for a Cure golf cart to give away. Meguiar's will be filling the entire new Hangar building with more than 30 gorgeous cars, and detailing exhibitions all day.

DP: What do you think makes this show stand out from all the others?

DB: Cruisin' for a Cure is truly a save-your-life car show. What other way to get men and their toys together, have a great time, and get them tested? Most men are so afraid of either needles or the unknown, but CFAC has and will continue saving lives. It is amazing as prostate cancer used to be the "old man disease," but no longer. They are finding more and more men in their early 40s with more aggressive cancer, and that is why it is so important to take advantage of the free prostate screening. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete the paperwork and get the blood drawn — no big deal, and you never know, it might be their life that we save.

DP: Why is it important to get the word out about prostate cancer?

DB: It is such an easy cancer to detect, and the earlier the detection, the more chance of a complete recovery and a long life. If men have a grandfather, father or brother diagnosed with the disease, it is very important to start early testing at 40 years old. We have several brothers that come to the show, and as you [the reporter] know, your grandfather had it, your dad got it, and if you have a brother, he needs to be tested early too.

DP: Is it hard to get the community to rally around this cause, when so much attention is paid to breast cancer and events like Race for a Cure?

DB: Yes, and yes only because they have millions of dollars and the newspapers and media forget about our men — and that is another reason I started this; we need something to save our men and someone to push this. It took a long time for me and one other (who we lost last year) to get our president many years ago to declare September as National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. Thus the reason Cruisin' for a Cure is always the fourth Saturday of every September at the OC Fair & Event Center.

Last year we tested a record 1,166 men, and 153 men were told to see their doctors immediately. The nice thing is that the new robotic surgery has come so far, and all the doctors at City of Hope are very skilled because they were the pioneers of this. The surgery is much less evasive, with only one to maybe two days in the hospital, less complications, and they are home much sooner and on the road to recovery.

Robotic surgery is also much better than only the human eye, as it actually magnifies the areas hundreds of times that the human eye could not see, and they are able to get all the margins and do the nerve sparing surgery as well. Since this is such a "guy thing," the guys have to realize that the women have the same thing with breast cancer; not pleasant, but if you catch it early and are aware of the symptoms and how to cure it, you will live a long, healthy life!

DP: Has your passion for the cause become stronger since [your husband] Jim passed away?

DB: Yes, of course; I would like to someday see a cure for this disease, but we have seen a decrease in the amount of men dying each year because of the early screening and men following their yearly PSA scores and knowing what the symptoms and signs of prostate cancer are. We are all volunteers, and want to see our men around for a long, long time, free from this disease, and with the early detection, and coming out to the show, they can have fun and save a life.

DP: What are your future plans?

DB: Continue CFAC forever. It is the most rewarding thing to have a man I see at a car show who I did not know was one of last years' stats walk up and say "Thank you for saving my life," or the wife of one of our men who was tested last year, because it seems the wives need to drag their men into the testing area, and call me or write me a letter thanking me for saving her husband. So with that, it gives me more and more motivation to continue this forever.

All of the volunteers, including me, do this from the bottom of our hearts because we believe; we believe we are helping the community and all the men out there, and we have the best car show there is. We have now also expanded to Ontario, Canada; New York; Utah; and Fort Worth, and expect to continue to make this in every state. It takes a while to get into every state, but when people hear our name, Cruisin' for a Cure, they now relate it to prostate cancer — just like the women; when they hear their name brand, they relate to their cancers. But I do believe that our men need a fair share of advertising as well.

If You Go

What: Cruisin' for a Cure charity car show

When: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 25

Where: OC Fair & Events Center, 85 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

Admission: $12 for adults; children younger than 12 get in for free

Information: (714) 803-9216 or cruisinforacure.com

Fast Facts from Debbie Baker

•Any man 40 and older should have a prostate cancer screening and follow their PSA scores yearly.

Any man with a family history of prostate cancer should start screening at age 35.

Eleven years ago when we started Cruisin' for a Cure, 230,000 men died each year. We now have it down to about 226,000 men who die each year from this.

Possible Prostate Cancer Symptoms

Weak or interrupted flow of urine

Frequent urination (especially at night)

Trouble urinating

Pain or burning during urination

Blood in the urine or semen

A pain in the back, hips or pelvis that doesn't go away

Painful ejaculation

SOURCE: City of Hope

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