THE BLOG

The Trouble With Men and Cancer

06/04/2014 16:13 BST | Updated 06/06/2014 10:59 BST

I'm a hypochondriac. There, I've said it. I can't simply have a tummy bug. I go the full works and insist it's some exotic syndrome or life-limiting disease. And I don't care who knows. It seems however that I'm the exception to the rule. New research by UK charity Beating Bowel Cancer for its Lift the Lid Day reveals almost a quarter of men (23%) have never talked to a friend or relative about cancer.

That's the same increase percentage in cancer incidence rates in males since the mid-1970s. With over one in three of us likely to experience some form of cancer during our lifetime, this figure indicates a wave of ignorance and fear-induced silence amongst men.

Let's face it, men are rubbish at talking seriously about their health. Other than sporadically airing my own health-related neuroses, my own previous form on serious cancer talk is questionable. Other than a mere cursory chat to a friend about his mother's breast cancer diagnosis, it's probably zero.

That is until my dad was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 2012. From then on I couldn't have a conversation without a well-meaning friend, colleague or family member asking for the latest prognosis on his health.

For anyone who has been on a cancer journey, they will tell you it's a trial of the stoic and the brave. Strange then that not more people talk about it, if only to create a platform in which to diminish the fear surrounding the subject and educate each other on symptoms.

A friend of mine, Kris, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma Stage II at 24.

He said:

"Having grown up in a family where you don't go to see a doctor until your symptoms are unbearable, cancer certainly wasn't something we spoke about."

Kris had a lump on his neck for three weeks before finally seeing a doctor at the recommendation of friends. He added:

"I'm very open with my friends & family about what I went through. Awareness can definitely help with early diagnosis or even prevention. I wish there wasn't such taboo around the word 'cancer', but most think it'll never touch them and so ignore the subject. Statistics, unfortunately, say otherwise."

Try as they might, charities have a challenge in driving home the message to men to be more health-aware, even when they enlist the support of celebrities. Hollywood star Samuel L Jackson recently backed One For The Boys charity campaign, an initiative to get men talking about their health in an attempt to tackle cancer. "Guys don't talk about their health issues, unless they've got a sprained ankle," said the Pulp Fiction star.

Sofia Davis, the woman behind the charity said:

"That is exactly what we've found, men do not talk. It's not the manly thing to do. We are working hard to shine a light blue to what seems to be a very pink world in cancer campaigning. We want to educate men on prioritising their health, knowing what to look for and seek help when not sure as early detection will reduce the number of losses."

Other charities trying to bring about a sea change are the Marie Keating Foundation which recently launched its Get Men Talking campaign, while Macmillan Cancer Support has its annual Cancer Talk Week. Senior Macmillan information nurse John Newlands told me that Beating Bowl Cancer's figures aren't surprising:

"We know men are notoriously bad at talking about their health. It's easy to dismiss health problems as nothing serious and hope they'll go away but it's vital they are checked out. Talking about health concerns isn't a sign of weakness; it could save your life."

Mark Flannagan, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer is encouraging people to lift the lid for bowel cancer awareness month this April. He said:

"These figures are alarming. That men are still unwilling or unable to talk about cancer is of concern to us and other cancer charities. No one is immune from cancer and only by talking will the taboo surrounding it be diluted."

My late dad never talked about his cancer; neither did he talk about his health beforehand. If he had, would the outcome have been any different? Silence is so often synonymous with fear, and yet while his dignified silence was a noble stance to take, it prevented us, his loved ones, from having the opportunity to say so much more.

Ignorance is not bliss. Aldous Huxley once said "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored". Neither does cancer. A new conversation is needed because talking about cancer, being educated and aware of its symptoms could mean the difference between life and death.