DR MAX PEMBERTON: The real reason men don't go to the doctor

DR MAX PEMBERTON: The real reason men don’t go to the doctor

  • Dr Max Pemberton waited six months to have a strange mark examined by his GP
  • He said ignoring health concerns has been dubbed Fear Of Finding Out (FOFO)
  • NHS psychiatrist reflects on Bill Turnbull’s emotional TV interview last week

Women of Britain, your men need you. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. This rallying cry was sent out by the veteran broadcaster Bill Turnbull in an emotional TV interview last week about his incurable prostate cancer, which has now spread to his spine, hips, ribs, pelvis and legs.

He explained that he had ignored warning signs in the months before his diagnosis, saying: ‘I didn’t get checked, which is why I’m in the situation I’m in now.

‘Men don’t want to go to the doctor, as simple as that. I didn’t want to go to the doctor. Now I’m going to the doctor all the time.’

He then went on to urge women to encourage men to go to their GP if they have symptoms.

Dr Max Pemberton said men’s refusal to get medical help is partly down to a misplaced sense of stoicism that they should just ‘soldier on’ (file image)

‘If you’re worried about your dad, or your husband or your uncle … for heaven’s sake, tell them to go and get checked. It doesn’t hurt anybody and it can save you so much grief later.’

It’s true that men are notoriously bad at getting their health checked. While much is made of gender inequality in medicine — research suggests that women are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later, they are less likely to be prescribed painkillers and are also less likely to participate in clinical trials, for example.

Yet the brutal reality is that men die, on average, four years younger than women — and this is, at least in part, down to the fact that they tend to present with cancers later.

Indeed, with all the common cancers that affect both sexes, men are the more likely to die from it.

With prostate cancer, men simply do not want to get checked: they prefer to put their head in the sand.

Partly, men’s refusal to get help is down to a misplaced sense of stoicism that they should just ‘soldier on’.

Others ignore their symptoms and simply hope the problem will magically vanish.

I’ve seen it time and time again, especially when I worked in cancer care.

In fact, what it meant, of course, was that their cancer had progressed and was now at a later stage and required more invasive and intense treatment.

Dr Max (pictured) revealed it took him six months to get a strange mark on his cheek examined by his GP 

This psychological phenomenon of avoiding what could be bad news — turning a blind eye to those niggling health concerns rather than confronting them — has been dubbed Fear Of Finding Out (FOFO). So many people do this — even me.

A few years back, I noticed a strange mark on my cheek. It was no bigger than a grain of rice and very faint, but I worried about it as I have a family history of skin cancer.

I knew I should get it checked out.

Reader, it took me six months before I saw a GP about it and they immediately referred to a dermatologist.

Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing, but why on earth did I wait? In hindsight, it was an unbelievably stupid thing to do.

Research has shown that FOFO is a major barrier preventing people from seeking medical help — and particularly men. And I also think there’s something very specific about prostate cancer that makes men shrink away from getting things checked out.

First, there’s the fact they feel squeamish about the examination.

Then, there’s the fear that if they are diagnosed with prostate cancer, they may be shunted into treatment that could leave them impotent.

They are also fearful of the emotional fall-out of treatment.

The sense of loss that some women feel when they are diagnosed with breast cancer and have a mastectomy is well-known, with women offered psychotherapy to help them cope with this.

It is accepted that it can have a profound impact on how women perceive themselves and their sense of womanhood and femininity. Yet men aren’t afforded the same sensitivity when it comes to prostate treatment that might affect their potency and their sense of masculinity.

When things such as impotence are mentioned, it’s always just cold statistics and never the reality of what sex after treatment is like or what to expect.

For men, the psychological effects of surgery are downplayed or just ignored.

A friend of mine who had prostate surgery said that, while he was asked about function, he had never once been asked about how he actually felt.

It wasn’t until he fell into a depression and his wife insisted he went to his GP that he was referred for psychotherapy.

Dr Max who was once vegan, admits he’s never been convinced that being vegan is healthy (file image) 

I think part of tackling men’s reluctance to come forward earlier lies in talking more honestly about their fears for treatment and providing proper emotional support for them.

But, in the meantime, they need encouragement from those closest to them not to put their head in the sand.

Sure, they might roll their eyes and be irritable for a while, but by insisting they go to the doctor, you might save their life.

So don’t put it off. If a man you love is worried about their health, bite the bullet and demand that they see their GP.

Why I’m suspicious of veganism

Research last week suggests people following a vegan diet are at higher risk of breaking bones. This goes against the current orthodoxy, especially among the young, that being vegan is healthy. I’ve never been convinced of this — and I was once vegan myself.

The interesting thing about veganism is that it’s not so much about feeling healthy, it’s about control and the sense of virtue this brings. Restricting our diets is an old, established way of feeling in control — indeed, it’s what underpins many eating disorders.

This is why I’m suspicious of any diet that dictates what someone eats so rigidly, and this applies to veganism, too. The anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that what we eat helps us to feel mastery over an otherwise chaotic and random world. By rigidly ordering food into things we can consume and those that we cannot, she argued, we create meaning in our lives. Vegans claim it’s healthy to cut out meat and diary, yet there is mounting evidence that this isn’t true. The fact is the healthiest diet includes a little of everything. But that is not what vegans want to hear.

Dr Max revealed turmeric has been shown to improve gut health and immunity (file image)

 Would you go under the knife while wide awake? Local or ‘regional’ nerve blocks are being suggested as a way to speed up operations and tackle the backlog of patients waiting for procedures. The idea has caused some dismay as it sounds fairly horrific — but I think we should be doing more of these kind of ops. A general anaesthetic can cause lasting problems to people’s brains, with middle-aged and older people having a higher risk of memory loss and cognitive decline. When I broke my foot, I asked for light sedation and a nerve block. I was actually quite euphoric during the procedure and my vague memory of it is entirely positive.

Dr Max prescribes…turmeric

A diet rich in phytochemicals — a group of powerful compounds found in foods such as turmeric — has been shown to improve gut health and immunity. The Phyto-V study is now underway to look at whether these substances, which are already known to help prevent the spread of SARS, could help in the fight against Covid. I’m a big fan of turmeric and take a capsule of it every day. I also add it to foods like scrambled eggs for an extra boost.

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