Doctor, doctor, (don't) tell me the news
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Doctor, doctor, (don't) tell me the news

If you are a straight woman of any age, in a relationship with any degree of permanence, there will be one relationship job you have which drives you around the bend. It’s the job of getting your partner to take his health seriously.

Men don't like to visit doctors.

Men don't like to visit doctors.Credit:SMH

It’s not actually his fault. He’s been trained to not take his feelings all that seriously. Been trained to put his health last. That’s all girly mumbo jumbo.

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In a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Men’s Health, researchers James Mahalik and Faedra Dagirmanjian told it plainly. Getting help is gendered – and that means men don’t do it.

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“What’s the word I’m looking for, you find out you’re not infallible, you’re not a man. You’re not indestructible kind of thing. I think that’s more upsetting to a man than it is a woman,” said one of the men they interviewed.

But good news might be on the horizon. Not all experts say this will work – and not all agree with the premise. But those days of having to nag to get your partner to have a colonoscopy will be behind you. (Sorry.)

University of Sydney researchers say doctors must stop using the word cancer at the merest cell change, the teensiest change in prostate specific antigens, the smallest alteration to an otherwise healthy body. They have good reasons for this: it turns out that when people hear the c word, they panic.

Image of a prostate cancer cell. Researchers say there is no need to use the 'c' word at the merest hint of cell change.

Image of a prostate cancer cell. Researchers say there is no need to use the 'c' word at the merest hint of cell change.Credit:Not for syndication

Mostly, that panic is not necessary. And mostly, that’s what people are most afraid of when visiting the GP: the bad news, the sad news, the news which tells them they are not indestructible. The inevitable. When I say people, I mean men. Men do not like to visit the doctor. They don’t go very often even though they are three times as likely to die of coronary disease as women are. Plus, they are not fans of preventative health checks. On top of that, starting as early as the age of 15, men spend less time with their GPs than women. They still have a shorter life expectancy than women (although the gap is shrinking).

The University of Sydney research says dropping the cancer label from low-risk conditions may protect patients from unnecessary and aggressive treatments. Once they hear the C word, they want the most invasive treatment possible in order to cut the cancer from their bodies. They can’t bear the silent waiting, the active surveillance.

The senior author of the new report, Kirsten McCaffery, a professor of behavioural science with an international reputation in screening, shared decision making and health literacy, says getting men to see the doctor may be a side benefit of a better way of talking about these low-risk cancers and that medicine now understands that not all cancers are the same. She believes it may help reduce the prevalence of horrible surgeries and horrible treatments. She’s also confident it could make the whole idea of regular check-ups less anxiety-producing – and that’s a very good thing for us all. We need evidence-based decisions, not fear-based decisions.

“These are turtle cancers, that are very slow and there is no need to have immediate surgeries and radical treatments. We are working from a 19th century definition of cancer, when cancer was a death sentence,” says McCaffery. As she puts it, “We know there are many men who avoid going to see the doctor because they are fearful something is wrong and they would rather not think about it. This new approach could reduce that anxiety. ”

But is that enough? John Macdonald, leader of the men’s health team and professor of primary care at Western Sydney University, tells me he hears women reproaching each other in the supermarket for not getting their Pap smears or mammograms. And I admit it’s the kind of thing I might do to a friend. While he says the changes to the language we might use around cancer could help, we need to set men up to want to visit the doctor, as opposed to relying on their nagging partners (as little fun for the nagger as it is for the nagee).

“We need to tell them that taking care of themselves is not wussy,” says Macdonald. He also believes doctors must take responsibility and make their services more male-friendly. He reminds me that Australia is one of only three countries in the world with a national men’s health policy “but nobody ever refers to it”.

Of course, as with any new research, not everyone’s convinced. The newish president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Harry Nespolon says this proposal is dumbing down the advice given to patients. He says we always need to know the truth, the whole truth.

But I’d argue that by using a word which scares people – and by people, I mean men – we cut them off from accessing the one thing which could save their lives. Decreasing the amount of drama around diagnosis could help with that. It could save men’s lives.

Jenna Price is a Herald columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.