by Owen Sharp – Chief Executive, Prostate Cancer UK
For many working in public health, March is all about prostate cancer.
Since we launched the first ever prostate cancer awareness month back in 2009, we’ve certainly made an impact, but one thing we’ve realised is that one month a year just isn’t enough to highlight the huge impact of prostate cancer in the UK.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK and predicted to be the most common cancer overall by 2030 . The disease kills over 10,000 men each year , putting it firmly in the top 10 causes of male death in the UK .
But it’s also a disease with no one-size-fits-all health message. There’s no test good enough for a national screening programme, no hard and fast symptoms – and often no symptoms at all. And it’s a cancer which targets a group who can be notoriously neglectful of their own health – men.
On top of that, research into prostate cancer is badly underfunded leaving tests and treatments trailing behind other common cancers. And the quality and availability of treatment and care can vary depending on where men live.
So this year, we’ve taken a different approach to getting prostate cancer on everyone’s agenda. Instead of 31 days of activity, we’re going to be campaigning 365 days of the year.
Men United v Prostate Cancer, which launched in January with Bill Bailey fronting our advertising, is our ongoing campaign to build a movement for men to unite against prostate cancer, raise awareness and funds, support each other, campaign for change – and make a real difference to men’s health in the UK.
If you work in public health, you’re probably already aware of some of the complexities around diagnosing and treating prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer can grow slowly or very quickly. Most prostate cancer is slow-growing to start with and may never cause any problems or symptoms in a man’s lifetime. However, some men will have cancer that is more aggressive or ‘high risk’, which needs treatment to help prevent or delay it spreading outside the prostate gland.
It’s these men that we need to reach. But, at the moment, there’s no reliable way of differentiating between slow-growing or more aggressive disease. Prostate cancer is diagnosed by a combination of PSA testing, physical examination of the prostate and prostate biopsy. Yet none of these techniques can conclusively tell whether a tumour is aggressive in its early stages, when it’s still confined to the prostate.
This means that newly diagnosed men can be faced with a tough decision – to have radical treatment and risk long-term, potentially debilitating side effects, like incontinence and erectile dysfunction, when the tumour might never affect life-expectancy or cause symptoms. Or, to have their cancer monitored and run the risk that the tumour might spread without warning.
Two of the main aims of our research strategy aim to tackle this.
On the one hand, we’re funding research into detecting men who are at high risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer, potentially enabling men to be closely monitored, giving a better chance of diagnosing aggressive cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful.
And at the same time, our researchers are looking at how to differentiate between slow-growing and aggressive disease, so that men can choose the treatment paths that are right for them. By funding this kind of prostate cancer research we’re playing the long-game, working to create a better future for men with prostate cancer. But what about the men who are at risk now? Men United v Prostate Cancer aims to get men talking and engaging with their own health.
Although current testing for prostate cancer isn’t perfect, we want men over 50 to go to their GP if they have any health concerns at all – whether about their risk of prostate cancer or if they are worried about any symptoms.
But we know that men are much less likely to go to their GP than women and that issues around masculinity and embarrassment can be a barrier to men addressing any health concerns or worrying symptoms until it’s too late.
Joining Men United is a conversation-starter. Anyone joining takes a short prostate cancer awareness test which they can then share with their friends and family via email or social media. Over 150,000 people have taken the test so far, smashing our original target of 15,000.
We can’t force health information down men’s throats but we can get them to start thinking and talking about it.