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Men's attitude to cancer: 'We don't do what we should - when we finally do, it's too late'

Why are men are 36% more likely to die of cancer compared to women, and how can we change this?

WHY DON’T MEN talk about cancer?

At a launch by the Irish Cancer Society this week, one of the more worrying problems around cancer awareness was how to reach out to men: to get them talking about symptoms they might have, and encouraging them to go to screenings to get checked.

The Irish Cancer Society says that over 75% of their interaction with the public is with women – which even includes questions around prostate cancer. This is because it’s often men’s wives who call up on their behalf to ask the questions they have.

That reluctance to talk openly about cancer and to get checked is having a serious effect: statistics show that men are 36% more likely to die of cancer compared to women, which is thought to be because of late diagnoses, leading to lower rates of survival.

A National Cancer Registry report from 2013 said this called for more gender specific and effective targeting of men in terms of tackling the disproportionate impact of cancer mortality on the male population.

One of the Irish Cancer Society’s messages as part of their ‘Get Cancer‘ campaign is to encourage men to go to screenings, and look out for symptoms they might have – and not to ignore them.

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Gerard Ingoldsby says that when his friends and neighbours heard he was diagnosed with cancer they were shocked, as he doesn’t drink or smoke, he eats healthily and exercises – all recommendations to reduce your risk.

“One person I knew [said it made him think] ‘we could all be walking around with some form of cancer and we wouldn’t know’.”

And for a while, that’s what Gerard was doing. In 2003, he began to feel a general discomfort, rectal bleeding began and he knew something wasn’t right.

Although a colonoscopy didn’t find anything, he went for a second one 18 months later because of worsening symptoms.

“There was a huge silence in the room when they did the second one – you could see a [blotch] on the screen.”

He was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer, aged 42, and said that in a way it was a relief as it confirmed his belief that something wasn’t right.

Luckily, the cancer was contained and he was told with treatment he would be okay.

But he’s adamant that if he hadn’t gone for that second check-up, if he hadn’t private health insurance that allowed him to be referred within three weeks, that he wouldn’t have survived as he was “just months away” from stage 4 cancer.

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“When I heard you were calling, I made a list of the things I wanted to say,” he told TheJournal.ie. It’s a simple list: ”Don’t ignore the symptoms. Go and get checked.”

There needs to be something there that pushes men to take account of what’s going on. If something’s bleeding from behind it shouldn’t be. It may not be sinister, it may not be anything, but for God’s sake go get it checked.

“Men just don’t take heed of what they should do. And the sad thing is that when they do, it’s often too late.”

He says that he saw the striking differences between men and women after he was cleared of cancer and attended counselling for his cancer treatment.

“It was a case of ‘blessed art thou amongst women’. The number of men whom I actually encountered was minimal compared to the number of women.” He says that the out of each class or session of 10-12 people, he would encounter 1-2 men.

‘A car crash saved my life’

Paul McLoone experienced first hand what can happen if you wait too long before getting checked.

The Co Donegal man says that while he was receiving treatment for colon, bowel and prostate cancer, that a lot of the men from his ward died because they had been diagnosed later and reached more advanced stages of cancer.

“Get yourself investigated, get yourself looked after. At that time I could spend €100 or €150 on a night out, so you must put things into perspective. This is life or death. Talking about €20 or €30 is a nonsense thing when you could be getting screened.

Spending money on screenings was the best investment of my life.

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Interestingly, Paul owes his early diagnosis to a car crash he was injured in in 2006. While visiting a GP for a follow-up, the doctor advised he be screened for cancer, which is when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“If I hadn’t listened to the doctor, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he says. “I thought when I was 50 said I’d be happy with living until I’m 60, but now that I’m here, I’ve changed my mind!”

When asked why men are more reluctant to get checked for cancer and talking about symptom worries, Paul says that it’s really a generational problem.

“You’re talking about my generation, the macho male was a huge issue at my young age. When I was going to school, men were to be the strong people. I remember when my brother died in the late 1970s, I was crying by the graveside and other men came up to me and said ‘Shake yourself up, and cop yourself on’ type of thing.

We had the absolutely wrong attitude to the role of males. We were taught by our fathers who came from a different culture and a different background.

“When you talk about men in their 50s and 60s, remember where we come from,” he says. “We aren’t as good at it but we’re improving, very slowly.”

He says that if screening did for others what it did for him, that would make a huge difference to survival rates, and that it’s important for men to get tested once they reach a certain age – as Paul had no symptoms when he was diagnosed in his mid-50s.

“You know the way we have a conversation around drink driving that’s ‘Jesus you had a few drinks and went out in the car? How stupid can you be?’”

“We need to be saying to men, ‘[What do you mean] you’re 55 and you haven’t gone for a screening!’”

Over 10,000 Irish men are diagnosed with invasive cancers each year, with the main offenders being forms of skin, prostate, lung and bowel cancer.

Because of the advancement of research and medical treatment, cancer is no longer synonymous with a terminal disease, and can be treated with success – if caught in time.

Updated at 12pm

Read: ‘I want to get cancer’: the new campaign that aims to shock you

Read: The risk of dying of cancer is significantly higher among Irish men than Irish women

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