The health of men is under the spotlight this month, but don't expect many males to speak up about it. Rob Kemp reports
November has become "Movember" among health campaigners around the world as thousands of men adopt a well-groomed approach to male cancer awareness. Movember aims to raise the profile of diseases such as prostate cancer and has rapidly increased in the numbers of men taking part and the amount of money raised in the eight years it's been running.
A simple idea that began in Australia, it involves men growing a strip of stylish facial hair on their upper lip in return for sponsorship money, which in turn is donated to several cancer research charities including www.prostate-cancer.org.uk.
In the UAE, prostate cancer is among one of the most common cancers to affect men. According to the most recent data for the region, from studies carried out in 2008 by the International Archive for the Research of Cancer (IARC), prostate cancer affects one in nine adult males. Even though it's highly treatable if caught early enough, spotting the symptoms isn't easy, especially if, like many men, you're reluctant to look for them.
"Men aren't as 'medicalised' as women are," explains Jonathan Waxman, the founder of The Prostate Cancer Charity and a professor of oncology at Hammersmith Hospital in London. "Females, through processes such as childbirth, have a greater interaction with the medical profession generally and are more likely to act when they have concerns about their bodies."
Men, on the other hand, often leave nagging aches and pains, or signs that something is medically wrong with them too long before seeking help.
"Men will wait until they're at death's door almost until they make an appointment with their doctor," says Waxman.
As a result, diseases which can be treated swiftly and successfully at their earliest stages - including prostate, skin and testicular cancer - become much more dangerous for men.
"That's where campaigns like Movember try to make a difference," says Waxman. "The idea is to plant the idea for men to look for signs of cancer and if they have any concerns to report them."
But while Waxman points out that Movember may now have become a global movement - with a few of its moustaches and fundraisers appearing in recent years in the UAE - health authorities in the Middle East have so far not pushed men to face up to the issue of male-specific cancers.
"To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any campaign to raise cancer awareness among men in the UAE," explains André Rizk, the chief of medical oncology at the Gulf International Cancer Center in Abu Dhabi.
The lack of health promotion directed at men in the region isn't down to any specific cultural differences between the Emirates and say, the UK, Canada or South Africa, where the campaign has become commonplace.
"I am not sure men in the UAE are unusually reluctant to face cancer issues, at least not more than their counterparts in any other part of the world," says Rizk. "I don't think there is any additional taboo or sense of shame regarding getting screening for cancer among men in the UAE either. It's all about awareness and education."
Meanwhile, the Movember campaign itself is also gaining momentum in India, Japan and Singapore, thanks in part to an online call to arms through the social networking site Facebook.
Perhaps an assessment of the true state of men's health in the UAE would help focus the minds of males here on issues such as cancer.
"There are figures about prostate cancer - but I am not sure about their accuracy, given the fact a significant number of the diagnosed cases among nationals and expats are never accounted for," warns Rizk. "The same goes for testicular cancer."
At present, men who present with symptoms, or who their doctor suspects may have prostate cancer, are initially checked using a urine test followed by a PSA blood test. Depending upon the results, treatment may continue to a biopsy, which involves removing and testing tissue; dependent on that outcome, they may need surgery or radiotherapy to remove the cancerous cells.
While prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men, there are prevention steps men can take. Finding out if there is a family history of the disease will help, as men are 2.5 times more likely to develop prostate cancer if a father or brother has had it.
There are also lifestyle changes that can be made.
"Exercising every day and taking more care of your diet can help," says Waxman. "Men living in western countries are more likely to get prostate cancer than men in south and east Asian countries. This may be because of the western diet, which contains less fruit and vegetables and more dairy, red meat, sugar and processed foods."
According to Rizk, it's these lifestyle factors that need to be addressed by men in the Emirates in order for them to cut their risk of all cancers.
"Nationals and expats need to change their habits toward smoking and exposure to the sun. For other cancers, the risk cannot be significantly changed - but sometimes the mortality related to it can be reduced by detecting it earlier, such as in the case of prostate cancer."
In the meantime, men should carry on growing their sponsored moustaches.
"The money raised is directed straight into cancer research," says Waxman. And that research could take an interesting turn in the near future, into an area previously considered to affect women only. In recent years, women and girls have been targeted with the HPV vaccine to prevent developing cancer of the cervix. It is thought men may benefit from protection as well.
"There is emerging data indicating that the male population around the world should also be vaccinated with HPV vaccine, as it may decrease the risk of some cancers," reveals Rizk. "However, at present it's still too premature to make it as a recommendation.
"For now, in order to help to raise awareness of male cancer issues, a similar campaign to the one done for breast cancer will be needed."