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Column: 'Men need to treat their bodies in a similar way as to how they treat their cars'

Prostate cancer accounts for over 30% of all male cancers but there is no national screening programme, writes Peter Gunning.

Peter Gunning Retired school principal and writer

I BROKE A rib recently. The circumstances of the break are a little too embarrassing to detail here but it involved the meeting of my stupidity and a wheelie-bin.

On the pain-scale I was recording and constantly reporting to Gerri, my wife, a nine and during the night a definite ten. She, in turn, was hugely sympathetic, supplying me with Brufen and advising me to go and get an x-ray, advice I declined preferring instead to constantly update her on how much I was suffering.

Her patience continued to be commensurate with my self-pitying until I made the huge mistake of telling her that I now appreciate how painful childbirth must have been. For the next week she went back to live in Venus and I was exiled to Mars.

A men’s health scandal

I was reminded of this a week or two ago. Stuck in traffic I happened upon Ivan Yates on Newstalk. Ivan was interviewing a journalist who had written an opinion piece about the recent health scandals.

Referencing the anti-D, cervical smears, symphysiotomy and transvaginal mesh controversies, the journalist made the valid observation that all these major scandals involved women’s health issues and that there had never been an equivalent men’s health scandal. If there had been would the reaction have been different?

With just a hint of smug chauvinism, Yates countered with a what-exactly-are you-saying? There’s a male conspiracy out there? Which of course was not what she was saying at all. This was not surprising.

Men and women do things differently

When it comes to health, men and women do things differently and women do them better. Anecdotally, a reputation for rude health is a “man thing”. Men are reluctant to go to doctors. Women go more often. Men are closed on health issues. Women are open on  health issues.

A friend once explained to me that because men never experience childbirth, they can only ever be peripherally empathetic to the female understanding of pain. The same friend also claimed that the complexities of the reproductive system result in women encountering more health problems. “Our wobbly bits are both on the inside and outside.”

But while her tongue may have been firmly in her cheek, the inferences were all too clear even to this self-confessed empathy-lacking alpha. While generally women may take health more seriously, men have their own bits, both internal and external, that are prone to wobble.

Men’s health

Prostate cancer accounts for over 30% of all male cancers with over 3,000 Irish men diagnosed annually. Yet there is no national screening programme inviting men to attend for a simple blood test and quick anal probe.

There are periodic awareness campaigns which encourage men to check for the easy to recognise symptoms. However, the success of these campaigns can be difficult to measure. Raising awareness still leaves a man quite a few steps away from the doctor’s surgery. While at best well-intended they lack the efficacy only a systemic approach can provide.

A letter in the post inviting every man over the age of fifty to attend for a prostate check is undoubtedly more effective than a chance reaction to a billboard. A prostate check screening database can only lead to improving mortality rates for this curable cancer.

Male cancer screening

Despite the tragic consequences of the cervical smear scandal, women are still being urged to attend CervicalCheck which provides screening for early signs of the disease for all women aged twenty-five to sixty. Breast cancer at 30% is the most common female cancer. BreastCheck provides a screening programme with all women between the ages fifty to sixty-nine scheduled for regular mammograms.

The only cancer screening programme open to both men and women is the National Bowel Screening Programme which was launched in 2012. In its first report published in the 2015 the NBSP stated of the 525 cancers detected, twice as many men were diagnosed than women.

Worryingly, albeit not surprisingly, fewer men than women participated in the programme. More disappointing is the fact that 60% of those invited to participate declined. Doing the maths this would suggest that over 600 cancers that might have been picked up at a precancerous or early stage were not.

Rude health excuse

While the benefits of providing national screening programmes for cancer cannot be denied, the provision of any system can never guarantee it will be accessed. As a society we have to dislodge the rude health excuse behind which so many men hide.

Men need to treat their bodies in a similar way as to how they treat their cars. They have to become intrinsically motivated to visit their GP for a regular service, especially as the mileage on the clock increases.

A yearly check on the usual suspects – PSA, diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure – might just help men to realise that women have not been living on Venus all this time. Phone home guys.

Peter Gunning is a retired school principal and writer.

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Peter Gunning  / Retired school principal and writer

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