Centre Head at Maggie’s Edinburgh Andrew Anderson examines why men may be reluctant to seek support, and what Maggie’s is doing to help more men get the help they need.
Leaving aside the old cliché about men making the worst patients, it’s true that men have certain issues when it comes to illness, most worrying of these being a tendency to ignore or downplay possible symptoms, and to put off visiting the doctor.
This attitude is especially challenging when it comes to cancer, for which early diagnosis is known to be an important factor in successful treatment. In fact men are more at risk from nearly all the common cancers that affect both genders. According to Cancer Research UK, men are 14% more likely than women to get cancer, and 30% more likely to die of it.
The reasons for these statistics are complex and include lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity, all of which are traditionally more prevalent in men than women. However, there’s plenty of evidence to show that gender-specific attitudes to illness also play their part.
“The evidence consistently shows that men seek less medical help than women,” says Lesley Howells, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Centre Head at Maggie’s Dundee. This is backed up by statistics from the NHS itself, which says that on average men visit their GP half as often as women.
When men do get medical help, they are still often less likely than women to seek non-clinical support – for practical matters such as benefits advice and healthy eating, and for the emotional and psychological issues that come with a diagnosis of cancer.
The societal expectation is that men should be providers, to be strong in the face of adversity, without displaying any signs of weakness. This can be like a barrier, preventing men from giving voice to anything that might be perceived as a sign of weakness, such as emotional distress, even in times of need.
Lesley Howells, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Men and Maggie's
Maggie’s has never been gender – or cancer – specific and while it’s still the case that more women than men use Maggie’s Centres, we’ve seen an encouraging increase in male visitors.
Every Maggie’s Centre (including the Online Centre) offers male-specific support, ranging from the hugely well-attended prostate cancer support groups and other male-cancer-specific groups, to more general group sessions for men. We've also partnered with organisations such as Prostate Cancer UK and Rangers Football Club, whose charity, The Rangers Charity Foundation, helped run weekly exercise sessions at Maggie’s Glasgow as part of a pilot course called "Making a Start".
I have experienced great camaraderie among the rest of the Prostate Group. We are all at various stages of treatment, but with the support and knowledge of the staff we are able to alleviate some of our anxieties.
Carl, Maggie's Swansea visitor
Encouraging more men to get the help they need has also played a role in the architecture of some Maggie’s Centres, each of which is designed by a highly respected architect to be uplifting, welcoming places. Maggie’s Newcastle, for example, which opened in 2013, has what many people experience as a more masculine look and feel; this was intentional on the part of its architect, Ted Cullinan, who has spoken about his desire to create a building that would appeal to men.
It’s clear that there’s sometimes a stigma, affecting both genders, around seeking emotional support for cancer. Maggie's is passionate about helping more people to find their way through cancer, and part of doing that involves challenging preconceptions that people (and men especially) don’t want or need the kind of help Maggie’s offers.
The fact is, everyone is different. What’s vital, though, is that as many people as possible know that it’s OK to ask for help, and that Maggie’s is here for you, whatever your age or gender.
John Hartson's story
In 2009, former Celtic footballer John Hartson was diagnosed with advanced (metastasised) testicular cancer. He ignored early symptoms and only went to the doctor when he began suffering “blinding headaches”.
By that time, his testicular cancer – a cancer that when caught early has a very good rate of survival – had spread to his brain and lungs. “I’d had two tiny little lumps on my right testicle for four years before I did anything serious about it,” he says.
Once John began medical treatment for his cancer, he also found help from Maggie’s, which he has since supported.
I know first-hand what an amazing job the staff at Maggie’s do in helping people cope with the psychological and emotional impact of cancer. I think that men in particular can struggle with sharing their worries or feelings and Maggie’s gives them a place to go where they can talk if they want to, or just have a cup of tea and take the pressure off.
Six years on from his diagnosis, John, describes himself as a cancer survivor, but he knows things could have turned out very differently. He now runs his own charity, The John Hartson Foundation, to help support and give advice to men who find themselves in similar situations.