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Breaking the stigma around prostate cancer

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Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men globally, yet many men are reluctant to reach out for help.

It is ironic that on one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has diverted our attention towards healthcare, while on the other hand, people have delayed or missed out on much-needed care during these times. This can be attributed to various reasons such as concerns about coronavirus exposure, ignorance to routine diagnostic and screening check-ups and the deprioritization of existing conditions, including chronic diseases.

While public health awareness needs to be brought in the spotlight again, awareness alone is not enough when it comes to breaking stigma and taboo around more sensitive healthcare issues. Medical science continues to progress in leaps and bounds, however, the behaviours and attitudes that shape how people think about and champion their own health and wellbeing continues to be an ongoing challenge. One such topic is that of men’s health.

There are many issues that impact men’s health. From common ones such as diabetes and hypertension, to those specific to men such as fertility issues, prostatitis and cancers of the genitourinary system (GU), the list is endless.

“Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men globally, yet many men are reluctant to reach out for help,” says Dr. Waleed Hassen, Department Chair, Urology at the Surgical Subspecialties Institute of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

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Dr. Waleed Hassen

Even today, the misconception that issues around men’s health label men as less ‘masculine’ persists and this societal pressure forces men to portray a “tough” exterior all the time. When we equate vulnerability and emotion with weakness, we cannot be surprised if men suppress their feelings and medical problems, which can in turn lead to anger and depression.

Understanding the risk factors for prostate cancer

For those who struggle or have struggled with prostate cancer and for others who want to educate themselves, having an overview of what this issue is, what increases the risk factor and in what form help is available, can be a good start to raising awareness.

Prostate cancer is the most common solid tumour in men globally and is known to present no symptoms in the early stages. This is one of the many reasons why experts strongly advocate for preventive screenings and regular diagnosis. There are some triggers and red flags that men can watch out for, which should prompt them to book an appointment with a specialist. These could be things that can get easily ignored like frequent urination at night, painful and burning sensation during urination, blood in urine or semen or frequent pain or stiffness in the hips.

The risk factors for prostate cancer are quite broad. Age is the greatest risk factor, as prostate cancer is observed in men over 65 years of age. However, many other factors such as family history, diet and lifestyle choices make a tremendous impact on your risk assessment.

It is important to change your sedentary lifestyle patterns by getting regular exercise and maintaining an optimal weight, as this is the easiest way to keep health issues at bay. This is a serious matter as 70 per cent men in the UAE fall in the overweight category, which is quite concerning. Another factor that works against maintaining a healthy lifestyle is smoking, which is again an ordeal, as one in four men in the UAE are smokers. 

It is also important to be aware of diagnostic and treatment options that can become lifesavers. We are in the age of evolved technology, which effectively marries conventional methods such as ultrasound, biopsy, PET scan and laparoscopy with new age solutions such as minimally invasive, robotic radical prostatectomy, intensity-modulated radiotherapy and stereotactic body radiation therapy. These advanced methods of treatment present many benefits like smaller scars, shorter recovery time and reduced risk of infection.

“This all can seem quite overwhelming. However, if I were to consolidate my advice in three simple points it would be; don’t be afraid to ask questions- you don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for help; find a safe space to share- reach out to a doctor, friend or family member, who can maintain your privacy and direct you to an expert to seek the right help; and, to get your prostate-specific antigen (PSA) checked as early as 40 years if you have a family history of prostate cancer or 50 otherwise- catching a condition at an early stage always increases your chances of survival,” Dr. Hassen says.

“Time and again, I’ve witnessed the incredible transformation in patients who have the courage to take that first step and ask for help. Just the initial relief of talking about issues that one’s held on to for so long, is in itself a major step in the right direction.”, Dr. Hassen concludes.

And while we encourage men to take charge of their health, all of us have a role to play in it as well. It is important for us to direct them to programs like MENtion It, which are safe and inclusive spaces where men can get access to resources and specialists to get the necessary treatment and advice. Remember, silence and avoidance can make the difference between life and death.

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