Prescription Drug Addiction In America

1207-drugstoreRYAN DONNELLY HAD IT DOWN COLD. THREE years ago he was a 25-year-old Navy vet who had been booted from the service for a failed drug test, cycled through cocaine to alcohol, and finally landed on a 560-milligram-a-day oxycodone addiction. To maintain his habit, Donnelly stole prescription pads. When those ran out, he dipped legitimate scrips in nail polish remover to strip away the physicians’ scribblings. He then took his forgeries to more than 20 pharmacies in and around his hometown of Toms River, New Jersey.

Today when the clean and sober Donnelly looks back on those years, he knows there were obvious signs of his addiction that anyone, especially an experienced pharmacist, could have picked up on.

“When you’re withdrawing, your upper lip and your forehead sweat; you look like you have the flu,” says Donnelly, who now runs, a social support website for recovering addicts. He says sometimes he’d even put on a suit in an effort to look normal. “You try to pull it together, but you end up looking like a hoodlum.”

If the red flags were there for all behind the counter to see, why didn’t anyone turn Donnelly away—or better yet, turn him in? Fortunately, a family intervention finally pushed the pillhead to rehab before he could hurt himself or anyone else.

Things ended more tragically in the case of David Laffer. In June 2011, Laffer walked into a Long Island pharmacy and shot the pharmacist, a 17-year-old employee, and two customers while stealing hydrocodone, a semisynthetic opioid derived from codeine. In the 12 days before the killings, he had filled six prescriptions from five different doctors for a total of more than 400 pills, according to one Long Island newspaper.

“We sometimes lose sight of the fact that pharmacists are trained to spot drug-seeking behavior,” says Luis Bauza, director of investigations at RxPatrol, an alliance formed between local law enforcement and the drug company Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, to track pharmacy fraud and thefts across the country. “I see pharmacists as our last line of defense.”

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Giving Nashville The Boot

Last year, three of the top six moneymakers in country music were Georgia boys: Macon’s Jason Aldean, Leesburg’s Luke Bryan, and Dahlonega’s Zac Brown Band. Scroll farther down the country charts and the Peach State continues to represent: Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard (Monroe), Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood (both from Augusta), and Kip Moore (Tifton). Of course, Georgia has a long tradition of producing musical talent across all genres, from Otis Redding to the Indigo Girls to R.E.M. to Ludacris to India.Arie to 2 Chainz. Even the lyrics to “Moon River” were written by a Georgian. Rappers still come to Atlanta to be part of the city’s hip-hop scene. But country artists? They leave for Nashville. Or do they? Here in Georgia, a few country musicians are taking a pass on Music City, choosing not just to live here but to write, record, and perform here. The decision comes at a cost.

Levi Lowrey
Levi Lowrey on the road.


In a cluttered storage room above a friend’s garage in Dacula, 31-year-old Levi Lowrey hunches over a MacBook, playing back some vocal tracks he recorded. He hides a young face behind a bushy black beard, and if you didn’t know him, you might think he was just a computer geek sitting amid dusty exercise equipment and old boxes.

Those who do know Lowrey might think something different: that this is a dismal place to be at this point in his music career. He’s released two albums with Zac Brown as a producer; has recorded with Nashville legends like Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and banjo master Darrell Scott; played Ryman Auditorium and Madison Square Garden as an opening act; and written two of Zac Brown Band’s biggest hits, including “Colder Weather,” which garnered Lowrey a Country Music Association Award nomination for song of the year.

But the songs coming out of his laptop are unlike anything you’d hear at the CMAs; they’re frenetic, bouncing among Southern rock, pop, bluegrass, alternative, and folk. There’s even a sea chantey. The lyrics are deeply personal: about his wife’s cancer and his own neglect of family in pursuit of professional success. Lowrey’s new album, “My Crazy Head,” which he recorded entirely himself in this room and his basement, is a liberation from more than five years of Nashville restraint. “The title song is my country anthem,” he says. “Now I can do whatever I want.”

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These Sisters Are The Real-Life Action Heroes

IMG_0681Aby Martin is used to being the guinea pig. As the youngest of the three Martin sisters, she is always the first in line to be punched, shot at, thrown from a roof, or dropped from the ceiling. Her father, Anderson Martin, jokingly refers to her as “dead weight” because she is so often the crash-test dummy (sometimes literally in the driver’s seat of a soon-to-be-crumpled car) when he’s trying to teach his girls about the family trade — movie stunt performance. Yet even the adventuresome 24-year-old is timid about today’s lesson: How To Get Kicked In The Crotch.

“I don’t want to do it,” she says, pouting in a long blond ponytail, yoga pants and tank top.

“You’re doing it,” says her father, on his knees before her, sweat rolling off his nose as he jury-rigs ankle cuffs to a pelvic harness he’s just strapped to his baby. “A stunt person is called in to be ready for anything.”

Late-morning sun pours in through the open bay door of Anderson’s dusty, 4,500-square-foot warehouse along the main drag of Carrollton, Georgia, a bedroom community about an hour outside of Atlanta. Ropes and harnesses are strung from the rafters. Air mats, pads and sheets of cardboard are spread across the concrete floor. Aby’s older sisters, Ashley Rae Trisler and Alex Duke, look on from the sidelines, giggling as their father rises — fairly confident that the makeshift device he’s concocted is in place.

He’s run a black strap from one ankle cuff up the inside of Aby’s leg, through a loop in the pelvic harness and down to the opposite ankle cuff, forming an inverted “V” between her legs. The entire apparatus is snug enough to slip seamlessly beneath a pair of pants or a long skirt. The idea is that when an actor or fellow stunt artist steps up to punt Aby’s privates, the point of the “V” will catch the leg inches short of her body and distribute the impact down to her legs and ankles. And in this instance, the kicker will be played by her father.

“Ready?” he says. ”

No,” says Aby. “I don’t like this.”

Heedless, Anderson lurches forward and starts to lift his leg in a deliberate slo-mo. Aby cringes and he stops.

Of course, the whole point of this exercise is that once the behind-the-scenes precautions are taken, it’s time for the stunt artist to become an actor.

“You’re scared,” he says. “It’s not like you have balls.”

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” she says.

“Well,” he says, “that’s why we use this device.”


Perhaps Aby is skittish because her neck is still sore from having been body-slammed for multiple takes last week on a super-secretive drama series. (Her father scolded her for making the rookie mistake of letting her head flop — “But that’s what the director wanted!”). Or maybe it’s her broken and dislocated nose from a softball mishap last month (“I never get that seriously hurt while I work”). Or, it could be the fact that last fall, she had to be punched in the crotch by actor Skyler Gisondo in a Wally World melee for the blockbuster Vacation reboot (for a punch there is no fail-safe apparatus, just a little padding and a lot of praying).

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Bible Belter

Bible-Belter-500x500The midday sun has finally emerged from behind the top tier of the Circle Tower in downtown Indianapolis, and gradually, it starts to lift the building’s broad shadow. Sunshine slowly pours into Monument Circle. The old cowboy grins.

Bending forward over the guitar strapped to his torso, the cowboy drags his guitar case onto a newly illuminated patch of brick sidewalk. “I follow the sun,” he says, gruff through a mouth of mangled yellow and brown teeth. “It’s nice in the sun.”

Today the sun, a steaming cup of black coffee and the Doral Ultra Light he’s pulled from his coat pocket are his only sources of warmth. It’s March 22, the second day of spring on the calendar, but a bitter breeze reminds the red-faced man that winter still holds sway. With one callused, wind-burnt hand, he flicks the flint of a lighter while shielding its flame with the other. The temperature flashing on the Emmis Building marquee across the way says 43 degrees, but damned if it doesn’t feel colder to the cowboy. He’s hungry. Hasn’t eaten since early this morning, and he’s fighting a cold. But “as long as the sun’s out,” he says, “I’ll be okay.”

After a couple drags, the cowboy checks his watch. Break’s over. He swipes off the lit end of the cigarette and sticks the remainder back in his pocket. He clears his throat, hocks phlegm from the back of his esophagus and spits the wad onto the sidewalk, smearing and spreading it out with his boot so as not to offend the passersby. He caresses his guitar, checking the tuning of its strings to make sure the cold hasn’t warped them, then looks up at the sky, the sun gleaming on his smudged sunglasses. Pulling a pick out of his hatband, he strums a slightly sour D chord. Then, in a deep, soulful vibrato that should belong to a much bigger man, the cowboy sings. He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead …

At that instant, as his distinctive baritone moan sounds strong and true, bouncing off the buildings and filling the Circle, he becomes what he is to most people: an element of the downtown environment almost as familiar as the Monument itself. As the words of the old spiritual spill from his chapped lips and rise into the air, he becomes visible to the people of the city street as the “Christian Cowboy.”

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly

Mike Tokars: What happened to the boy who witnessed his mother’s murder?

tokarsMike Tokars was four years old on November 29, 1992. Yet he remembers the events of that night clearly, and he recounts them with an almost unsettling calm.

He recalls waking up in the back of his mother’s 4Runner, which was in the garage of the family’s East Cobb home. A strange man emerged from the house with a sawed-off shotgun. The stranger kicked the family’s Springer Spaniel, Jake; jumped into the backseat beside Mike; and ordered Mike’s mother, Sara Tokars, to drive to a vacant residential development about a half mile away, where she pulled over. Then a gunshot. The stranger fled. From the passenger seat, Mike’s six-year-old brother, Rick, leaned over and turned off the ignition. Seeing their mother slumped over the steering wheel, Rick told Mike they had to go for help. But Mike sensed she was dead. The two boys ran about a hundred yards through the dark, through bushes with thorns that cut them, their blood mixing with that of their mother. The next morning, over a breakfast of their uncle’s waffles, the two boys kept saying: If only Dad had been there with his gun.

The brothers moved in with their maternal grandparents in coastal Bradenton, Florida. Their father, Fred Tokars—a high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney—would call and occasionally visit. He phoned on Mike’s sixth birthday, but when Mike tried to pass the phone to his brother, Rick refused. They both knew their father had been arrested, but Rick knew the implications. Back in Atlanta, Fred Tokars was charged with hiring the stranger, Curtis Rower, to kill Sara in an attempt to cover up his secret life of drug trafficking and money laundering. Mike never spoke to his father again. “At that point, he was no longer a good guy in my eyes,” says Mike.

Fred Tokars’s 1997 trial and conviction was broadcast nationally on Court TV. Mike did not attend. Family and friends shielded the boys, but “sometimes it would come up,” says Mike. “And when it didn’t, I knew that they knew.” Eventually public memory of the tragedy faded. “As we got older, we had more control over who knew,” says Mike. “I was always open about it with my close friends. I wanted to explain—talking about my parents made me feel like a normal person.” Mike says that wasn’t the case with his brother, who was much more guarded. “I can’t remember a single instance of us talking about it,” says Mike. “We didn’t need to.” On the 10th anniversary of their mother’s murder, Mike tried to broach the topic; Rick cut him off, and the two went surfing.

Rick went to college in San Diego and is now an avid surfer and traveler. Mike stayed closer to home, attending Tallahassee Community College and then the University of South Florida, where he majored in history and English literature. But he devoted more time and energy to touring the South by van and playing guitar in punk rock and ska bands. Reading “The Rum Diary” by Hunter S. Thompson inspired him to become a reporter and writer, so he moved to New York, where he interned and freelanced. On a whim, he applied to the Master of Journalism program at Columbia University and was shocked to be accepted. He plans to graduate this spring.

Reporters occasionally contact Mike about his parents; from inside prison his father has become a prolific prosecution witness, having helped solve six murders. Mike says his experience gives him insight into and empathy for the people he writes about who have suffered loss. More than anything, facing evil at such an early age has shaped the way he has approached his own life. “I don’t take anything for granted, don’t expect to be comfortable or safe,” he says. That’s not necessarily negative, he explains, using a surfing analogy: “When you’re in the water, you always worry that there’s a shark. But there’s a calmness when you actually spot a fin—you know the evil is there.”


Published in the March 2015 issue of Atlanta

Life After Lee

GSU2Allison Webb parked on the side of Charles Allen Drive as she had done dozens of times before.

But this time it took her five minutes to talk herself out of the car. The familiarity of this Midtown neighborhood was bittersweet. Lee had lived in a ground-floor apartment just down the road. Together they had shopped at Trader Joe’s and eaten at Woody’s CheeseSteaks, snapshot memories of her son that could one moment comfort her and the next send her spiraling into despair.

Crossing the street to the campus of Henry W. Grady High School was especially surreal. It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday in mid-December, and the classrooms were bright and bustling. As Webb passed each window, she could imagine Lee sitting at his desk, cutting up with friends, flirting with the girls. Flashing that perfect smile. She approached the old brick entrance, climbed the stairs, and stopped before the heavy gray doors. She pressed the intercom button and told the voice in the box her name and that she was there to see the counselors. As she waited to be buzzed in, Webb remembered the countless times she had stood in that very spot holding the lunch or the book that Lee had forgotten. More than once, she had paced there, empty-handed, worried, wondering what he had done to get sent to the office this time.

This time, Webb was here to help other kids in trouble. She had an appointment to speak with the faculty about the Lee Project, a non-profit initiative that partnered with the Georgia State College of Arts and Sciences to provide scholarships to high school students who’ve dealt with tragedy or extraordinary adversity.

The program began as a way for Webb to memorialize her son’s life. It became a reason for her to go on with her own.

It’s hard to remember her life before Lee.

She was 22, a student at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, when she got pregnant. She and Lee’s father split when Lee was 11 weeks old. Webb got a job at a dry cleaner. She left college, but promised herself she would go back once Lee graduated high school.

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History and “Hate Ashbury”

GSU1Kristina Graves was sure she was mistaken.

She was in the arena at the Yaraab Shriners Temple on Ponce de Leon Avenue, cheering on the Atlanta Rollergirls, the local flat-track roller derby team, and from her trackside seat she could have sworn she recognized one of the skaters zipping by.

That looks just like Dr. Brattain!

Graves’s former history professor at Georgia State and the “jammer” in question did share the same compact build — muscular shoulders squared atop a petite, wiry frame. The dark brown hair creeping from beneath the rim of the skater’s black helmet matched as well. Still, the idea that the same sweet woman who had once lectured Graves on Nixon and Kennedy and the Vietnam War and gently nudged her to pursue a master’s degree would be spending her Saturday nights gliding around in circles, exchanging elbows and body checks with sweaty, tattooed women twice her size seemed, at best, far-fetched.

The program offered little help — the “67” written in marker on the jammer’s arms was registered to Hate Ashbury, a skater alias.

There was only one way to be certain. After the final buzzer had ended the bout, Graves worked her way through the scattering crowd to the floor, toward the home bench where Hate Ashbury was greeting fans, grinning, celebrating her team’s victory. Even as she drew closer, Graves couldn’t shake her uncertainty. But by the time Graves was within shouting distance, before the former student could work up the courage to say anything, Michelle Brattain spun around on her skates, eyes widened with pleasant surprise and cried, “Kristina! Oh my gosh, you’re here!” Teacher hugged student and asked what she thought of the bout.

A few years prior, it was Brattain sitting trackside, wondering if she could see herself out there on eight wheels.

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Next Step: Literacy

GSU3Early County is a remote patch of southwestern Georgia bottomland pinned against the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama border. More than half of the county’s 11,000 residents are scattered across the countryside, many on farms — peanut and cotton, mostly. Cell phone reception is spotty, and those who can afford Internet access get barely enough bandwidth to check their email account, if they have one.

Blakely, population 5,000, is the county seat, centered on a domed and columned courthouse built in 1904 in the middle of the town square. It is the home of the county’s lone school district — 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The city also hosts the county’s sole library, though it is not really a part of most citizens’ daily lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of residents over the age of 16 lack basic literacy skills. One survey found 30 percent of households with young kids reported owning fewer than four children’s books. Some had none at all.

Based on some of these factors alone — higher levels of poverty, illiteracy and limitations in technological access — one might think this rural corner of Georgia had too many educational challenges. Georgia State Regents’ Professor of Psychology Robin Morris thought it was perfect.

Morris is a founding member of the Global Literacy Project, a partnership among Georgia State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University built around the idea of helping at-risk children learn basic language and literacy skills by connecting them with technology. The plan, simply put, was to load a tablet with interactive reading and language-rich software and hand it to a child in undeveloped Africa and India where there are no schools or teachers. The pure curiosity of youth, the researchers theorized, would lead the kids to figure out the reading-related games and puzzles on their own and, thus, they would essentially teach themselves to read.

That was the theory, at least. Before they could secure the money and resources to start the initiative on a global scale, reaching 170 million illiterate children in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Global Literacy Project had to see if the tablet would actually work. And what better, more accessible testing grounds than with at-risk children in the American South?

In late fall 2012, Morris and his team drove three-and-a-half hours down from Atlanta, set six Motorola Xoom tablets on a table in front of a pre-kindergarten class of 4- and 5-year-olds, and stepped back without saying a word. Many of kids had never seen such devices before. They approached with caution and handled the tablets with awe-inspired care. Without receiving a breath of instruction, they soon figured out how to turn on the display and quickly started scrolling through the applications and playing the reading and language games. A promising start.

But were the children actually learning?

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Re: Fredi

re-frediAll my boss does is complain about the Braves’ manager. To shut him up, I proposed a story showing him how lucky he and Atlanta baseball fans actually are.

Date: October 8, 2013
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Condolences—and a story idea


Sorry about your Braves. I’m sure you watched to the bitter end, right? I mean, it was the playoffs, after all.

They had it. Up 3–2 on the Dodgers. Game 4. Six outs from tying the series. Then David Carpenter gives up that double to lead off the eighth. Camera cuts to Braves dugout, Fredi Gonzalez chomping on his sunflower seeds. Then a shot of Craig Kimbrel, only the game’s best closer, in the Atlanta bullpen, just waiting for the call. A call that Fredi wouldn’t make. You’re probably screaming, Jesus, Fredi, put in Kimbrel! Instead, Juan Uribe parks Carpenter’s hanging curve in the lot beyond left field. Etc., etc. Braves choke again. I swear I could hear the chant in my neighborhood: Fire Fredi! Fire Fredi!

Sorry. Didn’t mean to mock your misery. (Well, maybe a little.) I’m still relatively new to town, not a Braves fan. But I’ve followed baseball most of my life, and I’ve gotta say that some Braves fans seem to have an inflated sense of their own suffering. You’ve had, what, two losing seasons in the past twenty-three? Fifteen division championships? Five pennants? C’mon!

And what has Fredi done but continue that success?

Since taking over the Braves three years ago, he’s won more games than any manager in major league baseball except the Rangers’ Ron Washington. Fourth-best record in the majors in 2012, second-best in 2013. But you guys still hate him. The sarcastic Twitter handles. The Fire Fredi Facebook page. The whining about his one career playoff win.

Look: Fredi’s fifty years old, and he’s been a big-league manager a total of seven seasons. In their first seven seasons, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and your own Bobby Cox combined got only one playoff win. Fredi has the sixth-highest career winning percentage among active managers and more wins in his career than Torre, LaRussa, or Cox had at the same point in their careers.

Anyway, my story idea: It would be about Fredi—sorta—but would actually be about the baseball fans around here who need to stop complaining and appreciate what they have.

Let me know.



Date: October 10, 2013
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Fredi


Quick follow-up: Any story would have to look at what a baseball manager actually does. Sure, he makes the lineup, shifts the fielders, calls the bullpen. But much of the game is out of his control. Hitters have to hit. Pitchers have to pitch. There’s this sabermetrician, James Click, who studied manager-driven statistics like bunting, intentional walks, and stolen bases. He couldn’t find a single manager who consistently helped his team win more by trying these things. So, this infallible tactician you’re looking for? Sorry, he doesn’t exist. And let’s say we get to July and you’re more tired of Fredi than ever. Firing him won’t work either. Analysts have found that midseason managerial switches have negligible impacts on winning. Maybe you should ask yourself who built the team you have? That would be general manager Frank Wren, using money from Liberty Media. In 2003, when Time Warner still owned the Braves, payroll was $106 million, third-highest in the majors. In 2013 it was $89 million, which ranked sixteenth. News flash: The sixteenth-best team has never made the playoffs. Meaning that Wren has spent the money pretty well—except when he hasn’t. Nearly a third of last year’s payroll went to B.J. Upton (.184) and Dan Uggla (.179), who combined for 322 strikeouts. All Fredi’s team did with the rest of the money was win ninety-six games.

And you’re blaming him?

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Dying For An Appointment

DONALD HAMON HAD WORKED CONSTRUCTION all his life. Every weekday for about 45 years, he would wake up, grab his tool belt, and drive to a work site where he’d labor and sweat beneath the sun until it set. Then he’d return to his home in rural West Harrison, Indiana, to enjoy his children and eventually his grand­children. It was on one of those evenings, in early 2005, while Hamon was wrestling around with his grandson on the living­-room floor, that the 9­-year­-old made a discovery.

“Grandpa,” said the boy, “you have a spot behind your ear.”

Sure enough, as Hamon ran his finger behind his right ear, he could feel the tiny raw patch of skin. It was hidden, so he couldn’t see it in the mirror. Nor could he remember ever feeling any pain. His wife confirmed the spot, no bigger than a punch hole, and told him he should have it looked at. So the 63-­year-­old Hamon did what many men do: He cleaned the wound, let it scab over, and promptly tried to forget about it.

Except the patch never healed. The scabs kept coming off, usually as Hamon slept. Almost a year went by. The spot grew to nearly the size of a nickel. Hamon couldn’t wait any longer. He picked up the phone and called a dermatologist in Aurora, Indiana, about 17 miles south of his home.

The doctor booked him for an appointment the following week, and it was then that Hamon learned the patch was cancerous—an aggressive form of squamous-­cell carcinoma that had spread to his parotids, the body’s largest salivary glands. A team of doctors first removed almost a quarter of his right ear in an emergency surgery to head off the cancer. Later they took out his parotids, along with lymph nodes. Then began the radiation therapy. After 32 grueling treatments, Hamon was finally pronounced cancer-free.

That should have been the end of the night­mare. But then, in May of 2010 as Hamon was mowing the lawn, a tree branch clipped his right ear. It started to ooze blood and never stopped. Having learned from his potentially fatal mistake 5 years earlier, Hamon phoned his dermatologist in Aurora and was told the doctor would be able to see him—in 4 to 6 months.

Four to 6 months? No, no. This was Donald  Hamon, Ham-on, he told them. A former patient with a history of cancer in this very ear.

This was an emergency.

Sorry, they said. The doctor’s appointment book was packed.

He called another dermatologist in the same building.

Four to 6 months.

He called a couple of specialists at the Western Hills campus of UC Health Dermatology, 19 miles away.

Six months or longer.

Cincinnati, 25 miles east?

Booked solid into next year.

Hamon went to his family practitioner, but all the doctor could do with his limited dermatological training was assist in trying to find a time, a cancellation, anything with an area dermatologist. Days became weeks that stacked into months without an opening. Hamon’s physical state didn’t improve. His mental state worsened. All he could envision was a tumor barnacled to his skull. He began to prepare himself for the idea that he might not be around much longer, that he was going to die in the distant, solitary waiting room his life had become.

HAMON WAS LUCKY HE DIDN’T FACE A similar wait back in 2006. That same year, two researchers at the University of California at San Francisco’s school of medicine decided to conduct an experiment. Posing  as worried patients, they phoned 851 dermatologists across the country for an appointment to have a suspicious “changing mole” checked out. The average wait time: 38 days. In some cities, like Boston, the wait was as long as 73 days. That would have provided a 10­-week head start for what could have been aggressive cancer.

Read the rest here at Men’s Health