Why are men reluctant to talk about cancer?

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 5379From: theguardian.com

As new research suggests almost a quarter of men have never talked about cancer to a friend or relative, a new conversation is needed to save lives.

Almost a quarter of men say they have never spoken to a friend or relative about cancer.

It’s a subject that strikes fear into the hearts of everyone – the taboo disease most people think they will never get. More than one in three people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime, so why aren’t we talking about it more? Almost a quarter of men (23%) say they have never spoken to a friend or relative about cancer, according to new research carried out by the charity Beating Bowel Cancer to coincide with its Lift the Lid day, which encourages people to talk about the disease.

The research made me question my own form on talking cancer. Other than a cursory chat to a friend about his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I don’t think I had ever talked about the disease to anyone.

That is until my world was devastated by my father’s diagnosis of advanced lung cancer in November 2012. Even though it seemed like every conversation with friends was bookended with the cancer chat, my father never talked about the disease even when he was in the midst of it. Neither do I think he spoke about the subject prior to diagnosis. If he had, would he have been aware that that cough may have been the first warning sign, would he have had his symptoms checked out earlier?

Mark Flannagan, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, says: “That people, especially men, are still unwilling or unable to talk about cancer is of concern to us and other cancer charities, given that the disease will affect us all in one way or another during our lifetime.

“No one is immune from cancer and only by opening up a dialogue on the subject will the taboo surrounding it be diluted and more people will feel able to discuss it, and be more aware of early warning signs.”

For anyone who has been on a cancer journey, they will tell you it’s a trial of the stoic and the brave, for all involved. Strange then that more people don’t talk about it, in the hope that learning about early symptoms can make the disease less frightening, and potentially save lives.

Kris Boobyer, from London, was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma stage II at 24, and says he was honest about the subject with everyone from the outset: “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. I had a lump on my neck for three weeks before I finally had it checked out at the recommendation of friends who were more concerned than I was. Luckily my cancer had only progressed to Stage II before it was detected and treated, but I know others that weren’t so lucky.

“I’m very frank, open and honest with my friends and 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 I know a lot of people think it’ll never happen to them or their loved ones and so ignore or shy away from the subject. Statistics, unfortunately, say otherwise.”

Jeff Orton, a dad from Leeds who had bowel cancer at the age of 35, says he always felt comfortable talking about cancer. He added: “Although I talked about it, I certainly didn’t think that it would be something that would affect me. I think the subject is taboo because most people will try to avoid talking about subjects that are simply not nice. Just using the word cancer can turn people off straight away. But finding the courage to talk to someone is paramount if you think you have symptoms.”

Richard Gawthorne, of Surrey, who has stage 4 cancer, is adamant that a dialogue should be started, even among young people: “That so little numbers of men are talking about cancer doesn’t surprise me, as we probably think illnesses even like this can be beaten at a young age. Unfortunately none of us are safe and cannot be guaranteed a successful recovery.”

Silence is so often synonymous with fear, and yet while my father’s dignified silence was a noble stance to take, it also disallowed us, his loved ones, from having the opportunity to say so much more. Ultimately, ignorance is not bliss and only by talking about the subject will we diminish the fear we all have of an illness which can be treated successfully if caught early.