June is Men’s Health Month – a good time to encourage early and preventive care. Plus, some men express resistance about seeing a doctor. Here are ways to get past it.
Livonia firefighter Michael Valdez never thought he’d get cancer. “I don’t smoke. I’m young and healthy,” he recounted on a recent Sunday afternoon. But in April, 2020 at age 33, he found himself sitting in his truck in the parking lot of the hospital emergency room he’d just visited, wondering if he’d live to see his two young children grow up. “Is this going to kill me?” Valdez thought to himself.
The “this” was a pea-sized tumor that showed up in a scan of his left testicle. He’d visited the emergency room because the pain that had started out as “just a little discomfort” had developed into a raging pain in his groin. Going to the ER, even in the midst of a pandemic, turned out to be the best course of action. Immediately following the scan, a staff urologist on duty at the hospital offered an opinion of what should come next.
The pain was caused from the tumor pressing on a nerve, so removing it became a priority. Quick removal also meant there was less chance for cancer cells to spread if the tumor was malignant. Valdez and his wife, who is a nurse, reviewed their options and set up the surgery to take place just two days after his visit to the ER. “There was certainly a whirlwind of emotions about everything – my health, my family, my kids. When would I get back to work?” he recalls.
Avoid the doctor at your own risk
While Valdez’s pain got him to see a doctor right away, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes little pains or body changes occur gradually and are casually brushed off – especially by men. There’s a host of reasons why men put off getting care, but doing so only increases their peril. Men’s average life spans are about five years shorter than women’s in the U.S., and avoiding doctors and dying of preventable diseases are contributing factors to this statistic.
Men are more likely to skip regular check-ups then women, with 72 percent of respondents to a Cleveland Clinic survey saying they would rather be doing household chores than going to the doctor. But putting off that check-up is how a small problem often becomes a big one. Especially when it comes to heart disease – the number one killer of men in the U.S. – treating conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can make the difference between managing the condition, or dying from it.
Heart disease is the number one killer of men in the U.S. Treating related conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can make the difference between managing the condition, or dying from it.
To catch early signs of testicular cancer, it’s recommended that men do a monthly self-exam to feel for hard lumps or changes in the size, shape and consistency of the testicles. “I wasn’t diligent about checking myself,” says Valdez, “so it turned out my pain was helpful because it made me seek care without delay.”
Early treatment = successful treatment
The surgery to remove the tumor was successful, though it would take a weekend of waiting to get the pathology report. When Valdez got the call, the news was cautiously optimistic. The tumor was malignant with cancer cells, and with that out of his body, every other indicator was clear. Follow up tests confirmed the initial pathology report, so when he next met with his oncology doctor, it was a big relief to hear that neither radiation nor chemotherapy was recommended. “The health risks associated with radiation and chemo outweighed the benefits in my case. We decided that active monitoring, in the form of getting a scan every three or four months, a chest X-ray, and lab work would provide an early warning system to catch something before it’s a real problem,” Valdez explained. Over time and with continuing clear results, the active monitoring can shift to every six months, and eventually every 12 months.
Four weeks after surgery, Valdez was back to his fire-fighting job. A year later, he’s training for a triathlon by completing a “sprint” consisting of a consecutive half-mile swim; 12.4 mile bike ride; and 5K (3.1 mile) run.
Everyone has men in their lives that they care about and want to be healthy. Michael Valdez’s story reminds us that men’s health isn’t a topic just for men or about men. “The signals of illness aren’t always going to hit you over the head,” jokes Valdez. But turning serious he follows up with, “that’s why I will do every routine check-up and urge others to do the same. I plan on being here for my family. It’s the manly thing to do.”
Not going to the doctor because . . .
While it’s quick and easy to say, “I’m too busy” to schedule a doctor appointment, there are other reasons lurking in the background that more fully explain why men are particularly averse to seeking care. Here’s what comes up when we dig deeper, and suggestions of how to respond.
“I’ll tough it out”
Call it the John Wayne syndrome, but the stereotype of the strong, silent type starts early. Forty-one percent of the Cleveland Clinic survey respondents said they were told as children that men don’t complain about health issues. So why “bother” a doctor for a routine check-up? And wouldn’t a “real man” just push through some amounts of physical or mental pain? NO!
Real men certainly recognize the value of preventive maintenance on many things they regularly use: their cars and lawn mowers, for example. Making it convenient and easy to set up a doctor’s appointment could have some impact on getting men into the doctor’s office. Of the men who aren’t already getting annual check-ups, 61 percent would be more likely to do so if they were offered things such as virtual visits, appointments outside work hours, or screenings at events they’re already participating in. Men are also open to having someone else make the appointment for them, which takes away the excuse that they just can’t get around to doing it.
Fear of diagnosis
Our rational selves understand that medical problems just don’t go away if we ignore them, but that doesn’t stop men from thinking this way at times. Hoping a problem will go away on its own may be okay for minor aches that occasionally come up, but persistent pain should be attended to, not tolerated. Pain is your body’s way of indicating a problem, so don’t ignore it – things can get worse.
Not wanting to hear bad news can also be a factor that keeps men away from the doctor’s office. In the Cleveland Clinic survey, 37 percent of the men who admit they haven’t been completely honest with their doctor say they knew something was wrong, but weren’t ready to face the diagnosis and/or would rather not know of a health problem.
Most of us can recite these oft-heard directives for healthy living: don’t smoke, exercise more, lose weight, and reduce stress. Hearing this news from your doctor, especially if it’s connected to a serious health problem, may not be what you want to hear. But hear it we must.
Your worst fears are more likely to become reality by avoiding the doctor rather than seeing one.
In all of these scenarios, this one fact should trump the fears: early stage medical problems are generally easier and more successfully treated than late stage ones. Your worst fears are more likely to become reality by avoiding the doctor rather than seeing one.
Uncomfortable with exams
The idea of being poked and prodded isn’t pleasant. A physical examination may make some men feel vulnerable to judgment or heighten general uneasiness about their body. Being open and honest with medical personnel is the best way to alleviate these feelings. It really is okay to say “I’m feeling nervous about this exam,” or “I’m worried that this isn’t normal.” This opens the door for your doctor to provide information that can help put you at ease – or at least offer support for whatever feels difficult to you.