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Billy Davis Jr. & Marilyn McCoo

Finding success with the "it takes two" attitude.

by Julie McKenna

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, March/April 2001.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

You may recognize Billy Davis Jr. as the former lead singer of The 5th Dimension from the 1960s and 1970s, or from his current tour entitled It Takes Two, with his wife Marilyn McCoo (also a former singer for The 5th Dimension). This successful tour is a tribute to rock and soul duets of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Since 1965, Billy Davis Jr. has been part of the music industry, giving performances that have earned him 15 gold records, three platinum records and seven Grammy awards. One of the most inspiring performances, however, is his recent appearance as a prostate cancer survivor in the educational video Not By Myself.

In the first few months of 1999, Billy and Marilyn were touring in the production Hit Me With A Hot Note! - The Duke Ellington Songbook in celebration of the Duke Ellington Centennial. While Billy and Marilyn were busy with their heavy touring schedule, Billy received the devastating, although not entirely surprising news that he had prostate cancer.

In 1996 Billy had a PSA of 11 and his doctor encouraged him to get a biopsy. The results showed that Billy did not have cancer, but since he did have a high PSA, Billy kept a close eye on it and went in yearly after that to make sure it did not get any higher. In June of 1999, although he was not having any problems and did not think anything was wrong, his PSA had shot up to 18. Under the advice of his doctor he immediately had another biopsy, which showed he did have prostate cancer. Billy remembers thinking, "I've got to face the fact that this is in me and it's growing. I've got to start fighting this thing right now."

Billy wanted to get involved with making the Not By Myself video because he wanted to help men with prostate cancer manage treatment side effects.

Although devastated by the news, Billy and Marilyn knew they had to somehow find out more about his disease. "We went to libraries, got on the computer, bought books about the different treatments and the different ways to go - that's one of the things our doctor recommended we do because it was my decision and I should have as much knowledge about it as possible," recalls Billy. Both his primary doctor and a prostate cancer specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital had agreed that the cancer was confined to the prostate.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

At first Billy was concerned about the possible side effects of undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, but "that's without having some knowledge and wisdom about it," Billy explains. Billy decided to have surgery and asked Marilyn to call the doctor and set up the surgery. "I was never afraid of it," remembers Billy. "I was at total peace with it. I came through it in the time they said I would."

Since both Billy and Marilyn are in the public eye, they had to consider whether or not to go public with the news of his prostate cancer. "I didn't want to go public with it before the surgery," explains Billy. "In our business people create all kinds of gossip. A lot of entertainers go in the hospital under different names - that's what I had to do. But once I had the surgery and I was back on my feet, I went public with it. I went on the Today show and talked about it to the world."

Fellow performers and fans were encouraging during his recovery. "They were praying for us and were very supportive," says Billy. "I had a lot of fan support. Once I went public with it they sent me letters - it was a beautiful thing. They would come to shows and watch me on stage, thinking I didn't look any different even though I just got out of the hospital."

Billy wanted to get involved with making the Not By Myself video because he wanted to help men with prostate cancer manage treatment side effects such as incontinence and impotence. Billy has friends who have prostate cancer in their families, but still do not want to get a checkup out of fear. "I decided I would speak out to men about it because men are so headstrong when it comes to doing something about prostate cancer," explains Billy. "I was just happy to be able to talk about it, to be able to help somebody."

The video is aimed at the emotional needs of African-American prostate cancer survivors to help them through the treatment and side effects. It gives an overview of prostate cancer, interviews with various African-American survivors, and guidelines on how to deal with the side effects of treatment. "Prostate cancer can be a frightening experience," says Billy, explaining the need for the video. "The important thing is to get educated and not give up hope. Patients shouldn't be afraid to talk about all aspects of their treatment with their doctor, particularly potential physical and emotional side effects - subjects that many men find embarrassing to discuss." Amgen and Praecis Pharmaceuticals sponsor the video.

In addition to the Not By Myself video, Billy and Marilyn find time to be involved in national telethons and other charities. Recently, Billy and Marilyn formed a fellowship ministry in Los Angeles called Soldiers For The Second Coming, which meets monthly. They have also recorded gospel albums, appeared on numerous Christian television programs, and are currently working on a book together. In the little spare time he has after his numerous projects, Billy is working on a special blues show that will be a tribute to Ottis Redding, B.B. King, and other artists who have influenced him throughout his career.

Billy has enjoyed many years of success with his music career and now he is also enjoying success as a cancer survivor. When asked what advice he has for other prostate cancer survivors, Billy says, "I would tell them not to be afraid and to do as much research as possible. We've come to the point where we can take a lot of the fear out of the way. Don't be afraid to stay on top of it and have yourself checked." For years, Billy and Marilyn have worked as a team building successful careers, and now after surviving Billy's cancer together, their current tour title says it all: "it takes two."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2001.