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Dr. LaSalle D. LeffallCancer pioneer assured place in Black history

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Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall’s place in Black history is assured, but it’s family history he wants African Americans in Indianapolis to remember more.

Too many African Americans are still reluctant to disclose their history of cancer – even to loved ones. That history can make a big difference in whether close relatives decide to get early screenings that could save their lives.

Over a career that has spanned more than a half-century, Leffall, 79, has seen people overcome those fears.

“We’re slowly changing that,” said Leffall, a professor of surgery at Howard University in Washington. “But there are still some people who don’t want to talk about it.”

Dr. Frank Lloyd Jr. agrees on the importance of family history and adequate screening. Lloyd, a surgeon who is also the Marion County Coroner, called Leffall “courageous – one of the greatest African-American professionals.”

Lloyd’s late father developed prostate cancer, but survived it due to early detection and treatment.

Lloyd recommends all men get tested for prostate cancer, either through blood sample or rectal exams. Many doctors, clinics and hospitals in Indianapolis offer the tests; the Central Indiana Cancer Center can offer more information, as can the American Cancer Society.

Leffall credits increased screenings with reducing high death rates among Blacks from breast, colon and cervical cancer. 

He remembers his early days as a cancer surgeon in the 1950s and 1960s when most of his patients arrived with late-stage cancers that were either untreatable or required radical surgery.

“Whenever you say ‘cancer,’ I think about death,” he recalls one patient telling him.

He remembers, too, a segregated America and the stigma attached to his race by even many in the medical field.

“There was a feeling if you were Black you just couldn’t be as good as your white counterpart,” he said.

But Leffall persisted, graduating from Florida A&M University and then from the Howard University College of Medicine – two of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

He went on to practice at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 1957.

He returned to Howard, where he taught surgery and became chairman of the department of surgery for more than 25 years.

He also became the first African-American president of the American College of Surgeons and the first African-American President of the American Cancer Society.

He is fond of quoting one of his mentors, Dr. Charles Drew: “Excellence of performance will transcend artificial barriers created by man.”

Now, African Americans are resident physicians in most every major medical program all over the country. “By and large, they are well accepted,” he said.

Following in the footsteps of Leffall, today African Americans occupy some of the top health care positions in the United States. According to 2000 Census figures – the most recent available – there are 175 Black medical doctors in Indianapolis.

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