Community Conversations Organizations

The Empowerment Network promotes prostate cancer testing and supports survivors

The Empowerment Network (TEN) has provided brotherhood and fellowship to prostate cancer survivors and their loved ones at 6000 West Florissant Ave. in North St. Louis city for nearly 15 years. Although primarily African American men meet there, its virtual reach extends as far as Ireland. TEN exists today because of a promise to God and the struggle of two charismatic fighters to create services they could not find.

Prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in Black men. If diagnosed early, a man has an excellent chance of survival; however, one out of every 25 African American men die from it—more than any ethnic/racial group.

American Cancer Society, 2019

Mellve and Isadore

In 2005, Co-founder and CEO Mellve Shahid, Sr., had retired from Chrysler Corp. with big plans. Two years later, a prostate cancer diagnosis changed everything. While on the operating table, he made a promise to God that he would dedicate his life to educating men about prostate cancer if he survived. He has been keeping that promise ever since.

Mellve soon met and befriended Isadore M. Wayne, Sr., who had a prostatectomy a few years before—coincidentally not long after his retirement from UPS. They looked for a prostate cancer support group in the city but couldn’t find one. In February 2008, they created TEN.

Isadore’s cancer later returned. Through his doctors, he got involved in clinical trials with Saint Louis University (SLU), which eventually led to a community-academic partnership between SLU and TEN,  focused on examining methods that increased the success of the organization. The Empowerment Network has received numerous awards and developed many partnerships throughout the years, including with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Isadore passed away in 2015. In the St. Louis American tribute article, Mellve spoke of the loss saying, “Today we grieve and tomorrow, we fight.”

Mellve uses many avenues to educate men on prostate cancer and promote screening. He produces a weekly Monday Motivator newsletter. Earlier this year, he began a media campaign to celebrate his 15th year of being cancer-free by asking for $15 donations for TEN. He makes a point of being the first person to talk to men who have been recently diagnosed or who are dealing with a recurrence.

From conversation to legislation

Former Missouri Senator Robin Wright-Jones has been TEN’s Executive Director since her retirement from legislature in 2013. She met Mellve when she was a state representative in 2008; Robin says Mellve passed her as she was walking out the door and asked if they could talk about prostate cancer. She told him to call her office, but he continued to walk with her. She says his passion made her stop and listen.

Robin Wright Jones with prostate cancer survivor and TEN board member Miles Strickland

Robin and Mellve drafted a bill to provide prostate cancer screenings and treatment services for men 35 years of age and older in the city of St. Louis and the Missouri Bootheel. The goal was to determine the prevalence of prostate cancer, much like the Show Me Healthy Women program does for breast and cervical cancers. The bill did not get heard.

Robin brought the bill back in 2011 and the men of TEN showed up. She remembers how she was cautioned by security when a sizeable group of Black men came to Robin’s office in black suits, white shirts, and sky blue ties—light blue is the color associated with prostate cancer. She laughs and says, “Too many Black men at one time made them a little nervous.” The men made an impact. She says it’s hard to ignore the issue when you hear their voices echoing in the Capitol Rotunda.

Former Representative Chris Carter, whose family owns the building TEN occupies, helped to get the bill passed in the House, and Robin worked to get it passed in the Senate. The legislation was signed in 2011.

Although the bill wasn’t funded as well as Robin would’ve liked, Lane Tabernacle Church in St. Louis and a health center in the Bootheel embraced the program. The bill was allowed to sunset in 2017. Robin says the money wasn’t “big enough for the Department of Health to take it and blow it up,” but they continue to present it in Senate hearings.

Nationally, the battle for funding for prostate cancer research has been championed by ZERO, an organization founded in 1996 focused on putting an end to prostate cancer. In 2017, ZERO successfully urged Congress to raise funding back to 2001 levels. TEN does not receive direct funding from ZERO, but they have had the largest team in St. Louis at the ZERO annual 5K run/walk for prostate cancer for the past four years. This year’s walk will be September 17 in Tower Grove Park.

Wraparound services

TEN provides help beyond the testing and treatment of prostate cancer. Robin says, “Our whole focus is to be of support to the survivor as a patient or as a survivor the whole journey.”

After-surgery kits provided by TEN

In 2010, TEN began providing post-surgery kits containing personal hygiene and comfort items. Each item was chosen based on Mellve and Isadore’s personal experience. Robin says men go home with a catheter, which keeps them homebound, and some may not have a caretaker. Survivors and their significant others are also given robes and house shoes, because the men cannot wear pants with a catheter. This way, Robin says, “they can sit there together in their robe and have their coffee.” The kits are sponsored by The St. Louis Men’s Group Against Cancer and SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.

Hand bells for those who have had prostate cancer.

TEN works with licensed professional counselors who provide group therapy and individual counseling. Members are told about tools to manage stress, sustain healthy relationships, and maintain a positive attitude. For men who are concerned about how prostate cancer will affect their sex life, TEN partners with a sexologist to provide psychosexual relationship services.

Last year, TEN began its Bell of Hope program in honor and recognition of men who complete a course of treatment or have been declared cancer-free. The men are invited to come to the office and have their picture taken while ringing a large brass nautical bell. Robin started a sponsorship program to present engraved bronze hand bells inscribed with the caption, “I Survived,” to the men.

To register as an individual or a team for the ZERO Prostate Cancer Run/Walk in St. Louis on Sept. 17, click here.

TEN continues to grow, moving from the basement of their building to the first floor. Mellve already has a concept model for the future home of The Empowerment Wellness Center for Cancer Survivors, stating it’s “just waiting to become a reality.”

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2019-2021. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2019.