Photography by OJ Slaughter
This was never meant to be our cover story. Back in April, we had a different plan for the cover story for this issue of the magazine. But once COVID19 restrictions made on-set photo shoots nearly impossible, our team brainstormed for possible solutions. In our search for a new cover star, one thing became abundantly clear: men don’t like to talk about cancer.
Anecdotally, we knew this to be true. Nine times out of 10, it is women—not men—who send us DMs or pitch us stories about their warrior spirit and triumphant lives as thrivers. And our own staff is almost entirely women. But we had never seen it play out so clearly in the production of the magazine as we did this spring. And a deeper search into our anecdotal analysis showed startling figures.
Despite the abundance and ubiquity of campaigns targeted toward women, it is men who face the most dire statistics related to cancer. According to a report compiled by Cancer Research UK, men are 16 percent more likely to get cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from cancer than women are. And the numbers are even more dire when comparing cancers that affected both men and women. According to the report, men were 60 percent more likely to get the specific cancer and 70 percent more likely to die from it.
What does this mean? Namely, that men have a cancer problem. And it is severe. Photographer OJ Slaughter pitched the idea of “The Invisible Man” to us and we jumped at the opportunity to utilize our pages to tell this universal but underreported story.
Why don’t men talk about cancer? We can point to a number of reasons why this may be the case.
For one, men are more likely to be less attuned to their health compared to women. Lifestyle factors that men are more likely to participate in like alcohol consumption, weight gain and lack of exercise are known risk factors for developing several types of cancer. And unlike women (who may be well-acquainted with numerous health professionals to assess their gynecological health), men are less likely to go to the doctor in general. A 2013 report from the American Journal of Men’s Health states that “about 21% of adult men did not make health care visits to a doctor’s office, emergency department, or utilize home visits compared to only 12% of women.”
Without an annual physical, men may be less likely to understand the early-onset symptoms of many cancer types such as a persistent cough, a change in bowel habit or problems with urination. Overall, nearly 41 percent of men have never had a cancer screening in the past compared to only 5 percent. These kinds of numbers point to an international crisis severely affecting the livelihood and life span of men. According to the report, between 3 and 35 percent of cancer deaths may have been prevented by early cancer screenings.
Furthermore, the report says “men’s underutilization of health services places them at a disadvantage and may be partially caused by the role of masculinity and social norms, which has frequently been documented as contributing to men not using services.”
Making visible the invisible will require considerable time and concerted effort. And perhaps our advocacy can look to the initiatives created by women for diseases like breast cancer. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for example, only launched in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries. But since then, its dominance and public awareness remains unmatched compared to other cancer types.
According to a 2020 report from the Journal of Urology, “Breast Cancer Awareness Month led to a significant increase in cancer-specific [relative search volume] in October each year during the study period,” with a mean increase of 180.1 percent. This number overshadows Prostate Cancer Awareness Month’s related search terms in September, which only saw an increase of 2.4 percent in September and 4.1 percent during “Movember.”
Progress may be slow growing, but it certainly is possible. The old adage is true: silence is violence. The less likely it is for men to speak up about their health and receive proper screenings, the more likely it is that they will continue to suffer dire consequences. And if our goal is to foster a cancer-free future, we must advocate for the “invisible man,” who may think cancer is someone else’s problem.