Eddie Check aims to honor a dad and save lives

Kevin Kirkland was a high school senior on the football practice field when he learned his father, Eddie, had been diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer. Four years later, his dad died from the disease. Kirkland doesn’t want anyone else to go through that experience.

Eddie Kirkland’s diagnosis was particularly difficult for Kevin because his mother had died a year before from breast cancer. Breast cancer was just gaining the public’s attention, while prostate cancer lurked in the shadows.

“Back in 1972, you didn’t hear people talk about prostate health, you didn’t hear people talk about PSA tests because there were no PSA tests,” he says. “I always said one day I wanted to do something that impacted men’s health like breast cancer awareness has impacted women’s health.”

More than 30 years later, Eddie Check was born. The program pairs free PSA tests for men with a Medic blood drive. The fi rst event in 2004 had  one Medic bus and did 50 PSA tests and collected 50 units of blood. At its beginnings, the initiative was called the Eddie Kirkland Memorial Blood Drive and Free PSA Testing Event Radio talk show host Phil Williams said ‘come get your Eddie Check’ on the air one year and the name stuck. The event is coordinated by Nisus Corp., where Kirkland now serves as president and CEO.

A year later, there was a second event, expanded to a second location. This year, there will be Eddie Check drives in 10 locations throughout eight East Tennessee counties. The initiative involves live radio shows on location  with partners including News Talk 98.7, WIVK and WNML and an annual blood drive contest with football fans at the University of Florida. Last year, the program collected 1,200 units of blood with more than 1,000 PSA tests conducted.

“All of a sudden it really started gaining its own strength and its own personality,” Kirkland says. “We’ve had tremendous support from the hospital community over the years. And then when Provision Center for Proton Therapy opened, they became our medical sponsor, and they’ve been an absolutely wonderful advocate and partner. And the Provision CARES Foundation now pays for all of the PSA tests.”

The event allows men, many of whom are hesitant to set up an annual physical exam, to get the PSA test for free while also performing a community service.

“Men don’t really like to go to the doctor, let’s just face it, they don’t,” Kirkland says. “With Eddie Check they can just stop by and get a free PSA test.” 

For Kevin Wathen of Maryville, getting a PSA test through Eddie Check revealed what a recent trip to his doctor had not: an elevated PSA level. A follow-up biopsy with a urologist revealed that nine of the 12 samples tested positive for cancer.

“There were no symptoms to tell me there was a problem,” Wathen says. “If I hadn’t had the test done I wouldn’t have given it any thought.”

As a result of Eddie Check, Wathen learned of his diagnosis and became an early patient at Provision Center for Proton Therapy. There, his prostate cancer was treated with protons, a type of radiation that pinpoints a tumor and spares much of the healthy tissue around it. This reduces side effects such as incontinence and impotency as well as discomfort during the time of treatment. Wathen was one of the fi rst to receive hypofractionated proton therapy treatments at the center, a shortened, more intense course that allows therapy duration to be cut in half.

“It still doesn’t feel like I ever had cancer,” he says.

Wathen says he would recommend men of all ages taking advantage of the free annual PSA test, at least to establish a baseline for further testing.

“Especially with Eddie Check being available at no charge,” Wathen says. “I’d do it every year.”

As Eddie Check has grown and expanded, Kirkland says more men locally are becoming familiar with the risk of prostate cancer and how to keep tabs on their health. After 11 years of the Eddie Check program, men often approach him to discuss early detection.

“I think the education and the promotion we put out for prostate health have really resonated,” he says, adding that other programs coordinated by local hospitals and advocacy organizations have provided a boost to the most common of men’s cancers. “I think all of that has really improved education on prostate health. It has made us proud to be a small part of that.”

 

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