Ignoring Prostate Cancer Won't Beat It, Joining the Fight Will

People expect that anything as serious as cancer will have obvious symptoms which will warn them to get a check up. But early stage prostate cancer doesn't usually have any: no visible lumps to look out for, no funny pains to get checked out.

Size definitely isn't everything where the prostate is concerned. This little gland, hidden from sight just below the bladder, is only about the size of a walnut. But when it goes rogue, a man's life can be over.

Surely men wouldn't ignore the prostate if they knew what it could do to them. So why do they? Is it because the gland is invisible and out of sight is out of mind? Or that men don't want to think about any problem below the belt? Or they don't believe prostate cancer is a real problem because it doesn't hit the headlines? Or perhaps the myth has taken hold that prostate cancer is a disease that men die with and not from.

But ask the families of some 11,000 men who die of it every year in the UK and they'll be quick to tell you another story; that prostate cancer doesn't go away if you stick your head in the sand; that it's a silent assassin which all too often takes men out in their prime; that it leaves their plans for retirement in tatters and their families grieving.

That's why we're trying to grab people's attention with a new awareness drive, which kicked off this week with a TV ad starring Jeremy Swift, who played Maggie Smith's butler Spratt in Downton Abbey, currently seen back in Sunday night service as Leslie Caron's butler in The Durrells.

In the skit, which flips the usual father-son 'facts of life' chat on its head, a son pins his golf-mad Dad down for a talk about the prostate, explaining what it does (it helps make semen) and what happens when it goes wrong. Swift, who plays the Dad, is sent to his room to go online, wise up, and join Prostate Cancer UK's fight against the disease.

The ad kicks off Prostate Cancer UK's 2016 campaign to counter the ignorance and neglect of a disease that kills one man every hour in the UK, a death toll that will rise sharply in future if this disease isn't curbed.

The problem came into sharp focus when the results of our two-yearly public survey just out revealed that a shocking 92% of men didn't know what the prostate did. That lack of awareness provides a clue as to why an aggressive cancer, which begins quietly in the secrecy of the prostate, often with no significant symptoms before its way beyond control, is all too easily missed. And the added danger is that it is so tempting for the decision makers in the health system to bypass prostate cancer because it is hard to spot and even harder to test or screen for. Much easier to park it in the "too difficult" box and focus on the quick wins.

But with well over 300,000 men currently living with it and prevalence increasing each year, ignoring prostate cancer isn't the answer. Because it is a big problem and getting bigger, prostate cancer should have more, not less, effort put into tackling it. After all, it's predicted to be the UK's most common cancer of all by 2030, even though it affects only men. At that sort of scale, it should be rocketing towards the top of the priority list for the NHS and Public Health England.

People expect that anything as serious as cancer will have obvious symptoms which will warn them to get a check up. But early stage prostate cancer doesn't usually have any: no visible lumps to look out for, no funny pains to get checked out. You'd think, then, that screening would be the obvious solution. After all, the stats show that men's survival chances are dramatically better if their cancer is caught early. But, sadly, the current test is too unreliable for population-wide screening. We need something better which not only picks up signs of the disease early but can also differentiate between tumours - the "tigers" that can kill you v the "pussycats" which will never do you any harm.

So it's a no-brainer that fighting prostate cancer depends on finding a better test. It's the Holy Grail. Prostate Cancer UK has made it top priority for our research investment. But In the meantime, debate about the pros and cons of screening can't be allowed to distract from more intelligent use of the existing PSA test and other diagnostic tools to target men at high risk, like those over 50, black men, and those with family history of the disease.

During a stint with Jeff Stelling on his Men United March for Prostate Cancer UK - a crusade for awareness of the disease and to raise funds for the fight against it - I got talking with lots of men who know prostate cancer up close and personal. I was struck by the profound impact the diagnosis had had on their view of life. Even if they didn't need significant ongoing treatment and now had a good long term prognosis, they said the experience had jolted things into perspective.

Mile after mile, I heard men talk about making the most of precious time, having more fun, building memories with their families, and doing the things they had always wanted to do. They spoke about the satisfaction they felt from doing things, big and small, which made them and their families proud. They recognised how priceless good health is, and simply couldn't understand how men would let ignorance, apathy or fear of a simple test or of treatment, get in the way of looking after their health - even though several of them admitted they had done exactly that before they were diagnosed. The very clear message coming from them to other men was not to stick your head in the sand in a misguided attempt to ignore prostate cancer, but to get informed about it for yourself and to join the fight to beat it for everybody.

I'm passing that message on and I hope others will too. It's a life saver.