Men’s health is not just about prostates

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 |

Prostate Cancer UK has been hugely successful in generating high-profile support and new sources of funding. The charity’s latest coup, TV ads featuring the top comedian Bill Bailey, is a major achievement. But while it’s fantastic that an important men’s health issue is being addressed in this way, there is at the same time a very real danger that the growing focus on prostate cancer will mean that other, even more significant men’s health issues, including other cancers, will remain overlooked.

Let’s get prostate cancer into proportion. It certainly affects large numbers of men – some 41,000 men are diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK and about 10,700 die. It is now the most commonly-diagnosed cancer in men.

But – and it’s a big but – each year 123,700 men are diagnosed with other cancers and 82,000 die from them. If we look at premature deaths (under 75 years of age) from all causes, fewer than 3% of these are caused by prostate cancer – it is clearly not a major cause of premature mortality in men. By contrast, diseases of the circulatory system cause 26% of the premature deaths in men. Bowel cancer actually kills considerably more men under 75 than prostate cancer (over 1,400 a year more, across the UK).

What’s more, unlike many of the major causes of death in men (including circulatory diseases and bowel cancer), prostate cancer cannot, as far as we know, be prevented by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Nor is it clear that prostate cancer outcomes be improved by screening (i.e. the PSA test), although this is a hotly-debated issue.

All this is not an argument for less funding for research on prostate cancer or for winding up campaigns that inform men about the symptoms and encourage them to see a doctor quickly if they develop them. (I had a prostate cancer scare last year – and needed a biopsy to give me the all-clear – so I’m personally very aware of the need for better methods of diagnosis and treatment.)

But there is a very powerful argument for doing much more to support actions that tackle those problems, including other cancers, which have the biggest impact on men’s health, especially preventable premature mortality. Men’s health is certainly not just about prostates.

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