Going blue in the face telling Irish men about cancer


WHEN IT comes to cancer, men just aren’t getting the message, it seems.

One in eight Irish men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime and every year about 500 of them die from it – yet prostate cancer is 90 per cent curable if detected and treated early. So why are so many dying?

“Men don’t seem to get the message as well as women that early detection in cancer does lead to a better survival rate,” says Prof Frank Sullivan.

As a radiation oncologist at NUI Galway and director of the Prostate Cancer Institute, Sullivan is at the coalface of the problem. And, as one of the people behind Blue September, a campaign to make men more aware of their health, he, along with prominent Irish men including singer Ronan Keating, broadcaster Matt Cooper and Tipperary hurler Lar Corbett, are literally going blue in the face to get the message across.

Looking to National Cancer Registry figures from 2007 and the number of all those who died from invasive cancers, deaths among Irish men outnumbered Irish women by 457.

Sullivan says higher cancer survival rates among women are partly due to their greater awareness of their health.

“Women seem to do a far better job of advising themselves of the issues than men do,” he says.

Citing lung, colorectal and prostate cancer as the top three causes of cancer deaths in Irish men, he says male cancers such as prostate cancer are failing to generate the same awareness as more female cancers, such as breast cancer.

In fact, at 2,720, there are more Irish men diagnosed with prostate cancer every year than there are women diagnosed with breast cancer, which at 2,500 women is still startling.

Sullivan says when it comes to prostate cancer, men need to be more aware and not wait until symptoms develop to take action.

“In general, every man over the age of 50 should know his PSA level,” he says of the simple blood test a GP can do to determine the prostate-specific antigen levels that can be an indicator of the disease.

“If your father or brother has had the disease, you might consider getting the test done a bit earlier,” he says. Other things to watch for are a change in the frequency or flow pattern in urination, getting up in the night to urinate or discomfort when urinating.

“The earlier you detect it, the more treatment options you have. At around 90 per cent, the cure rate for men with early prostate cancer is quite high.”

The first step Sullivan says is chatting with your GP who may then decide to take a blood sample and in some cases do a digital rectal exam, which he says “is painless and takes 30 seconds”.

Colorectal cancer is the other big killer among men causing more than 500 deaths each year. With a national bowel cancer screening programme for everyone aged 60-69 years promised for early 2012, Sullivan warns that any change in bowel health such as blood in the bowel motion or abdominal pain at any age should be raised with a doctor immediately. A GP may then recommend a stool test.

Of course, the most common cause of cancer in Ireland, regardless of gender, is lung cancer. While both smoking and lung cancer are more common in Irish men than in Irish women, the trends for women are worrying, with lung cancer incidence on the way up.

Either way, though early detection of the disease brings a chance of a cure, 40 per cent of Ireland’s lung cancer patients are still being diagnosed too late for active treatment, according to the Irish Cancer Society.

Blue September is getting the message out to the higher number of male smokers that a recurrent cough or chest infection or blood in the sputum are causes for concern and that it’s never too late to quit smoking.

Death from testicular cancer is rare and it’s a highly treatable form of cancer, says Sullivan.

With the Irish Cancer Society citing it as the most common cancer in younger men aged 15-34 in Ireland, symptoms to watch for can include a lump on a testicle, enlargement or swelling of the scrotum, or a dull ache or pain felt in the testes.

Sullivan says it’s about sitting down and talking to your GP. “Once guys hear the message, they have no difficulty making the right choices.”

Two recent prostate cancer survivors prove him right.

When Dundalk man Declan Gartland (51) got a letter from his GP asking him to come in for results of his regular blood test, Gartland was hesitant.

“I thought, is there need for this or is it just routine where you go in and he tells you everything is well and you walk out and it’s €40?”

When he eventually went in, he heard that his PSA levels were slightly elevated and an examination by his GP showed his prostate was slightly swollen.

Referred to the Mater hospital, an internal exam and then a biopsy detected cancer.

“The word cancer went over my head,” says Gartland. “I didn’t really think he was referring to me because it doesn’t happen to me, I’m 51 and prostate cancer is for people in their 70s.”

He said his consultant reassured him that because the cancer was detected early, the outcome was likely to be good, but Gartland chided himself for delaying his GP visit.

“I thought, what the hell was I at?”

“If I had my car going for an NCT, I’d be running around getting everything sorted. I spent €500 on the NCT and I didn’t bat an eyelid, but when it comes to spending on yourself, you have a different attitude, you leave it on the long finger.”

With the original blood test in November 2010, formal diagnosis in April and a prostate operation in early June, he says he’s got the all clear.

“It’s three months after my operation now and my PSA level is bang on,” he says. Declan has since pestered more than 20 of his friends to get their PSA levels checked.

“That blood test is the best €40 I ever spent. It’s too much of a gamble not to have it done.”

For David Rose (57) from Blanchardstown, a routine blood test in January also revealed high PSA levels with a biopsy in May detecting cancer.

“I had no symptoms, so I was stunned,” says Rose, “but my consultant gave me every confidence.”

Given the option of radiotherapy or having the prostate taken out, Rose opted for the latter. His operation in May was on the same day as the funeral of his friend’s brother who had died from the disease.

David’s own brother also died from prostate cancer and colon cancer. “He wouldn’t let them operate,” he says of his brother. “Then it went too far. He got treatment, but it wasn’t successful.”

Of those delaying getting checked, he says, “I think embarrassment is the biggest thing. They used to say, ‘Put your knees up to your chin’ [for the exam] and men don’t like that and are [saying], ‘Oh, I’m not getting that done’ – pure stupidity you know. I’m alive, and that’s the main thing.”

- 2,720 Irish men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year

- 2,500 women are diagnosed with breast cancer