When it comes to cancer and health awareness are women really from Venus and men from Mars?

Having recently carried out an evidence review examining needs of men with cancer and barriers to accessing health and social care services I was stunned to discover that, when looking at cancers affecting both men and women, men are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 70% more likely to die from the disease.[1] When compared to women, cancer mortality is consistently higher in men across all ages and comparable cancer types.[2]


From ‘The Excess Burden of Cancer in Men in the UK’1

Why is this?

No one knows for certain but one theory is that men lead unhealthier lifestyles, they drink more alcohol, they smoke more cigarettes and they eat unhealthier food. In fact 42% of men die prematurely (before the age of 75).[3]

But whilst these facts may be true for some it is certainly not true for all men. For example we are seeing dramatic declines in numbers of men smoking and, despite efforts to encourage women to don jogging bottoms and get active, men still generally do more exercise.2

Another important factor could be late presentation. Men are more likely to be treated in hospital as an inpatient for cancer and reasons include a lack of recognition and awareness of cancer signs and symptoms. In a recent interview for Third Sector, Owen Sharp CEO of Prostate Cancer UK, makes the point that ‘Men’s health inequality is just a big, big issue. There’s no biological or social reason now for us to sit here and say it’s all right that men die seven or eight years earlier than women do. We all just kind of accept that as the way it is. But it’s so often about late diagnosis and not having early interventions.’ [4]

And the issues don’t stop at the prevention and early diagnosis stage. Across all cancer types and all stages of the cancer journey men are less likely to report unmet needs than women with the exception of sexual health needs. Is this because they have fewer needs or do these needs just go unreported? How does a health and social care system know where to direct services if they don’t know what needs are unmet?

What if men are already at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing health and social care? Does it concern us that some studies have shown that men perceive subconscious (and unfortunately sometimes conscious) discrimination within healthcare settings, especially GP surgeries? ) [5],[6] The historic stereotype of the macho male is so engrained in us that it’s hard to unpick the myth from reality. The truth is men do care about their health; they just need approaching in the right way, at the right time.

Our evidence review has found that there are three main areas of need among men with cancer. These are in relation to sexual health, social isolation and financial support. Financial support services are generally well established and well used by men but this is not the case for sexual health or social isolation.

Men are not a homogenous group, their needs, attitudes and behaviours are as diverse as they are. Engaging men in positive health behaviours is possible and is being done successfully in small pockets across the UK. Take ‘Men’s Sheds’[7] and ‘Man MOT[8] for example, which have started to tackle some of the areas of unmet need amongst men.

Cancer does not discriminate – if we want to improve the lives of people affected by cancer EVERYONE needs to be included in cancer services and strategies. Let’s make sure services appeal to and cater to the needs of both men and women.

Societal culture is changing; let’s make sure we all change with it.

Rebecca Robertson is a Strategic Analyst in the Knowledge and Strategic Insight Team at Macmillan Cancer Support. This blog was based on an evidence review examining the needs and unmet needs of men with cancer and barriers which may prevent them accessing health and social care.

[1] White A, Thomson C and Forman D. The excess burden of cancer in men in the UK. London: National Cancer Intelligence Network; 2009.


[3] Men’s Health Forum. Engaging with men to improve their health. http://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/mhf_vcs_toolkit.pdf (Accessed July 2014)

[4] http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/interview-owen-sharp-prostate-cancer-uk-importance-blokey/management/article/1329773

[5] Men’s Health Forum. Haringey Man MOT Project. A review of the literature: Men’s health –seeking behaviours. http://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/mens_health_literature_review_dec2013_final.pdf (Accessed July 2014)

[6] Men’s Health Forum. Slow on the uptake? http://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/mhf_bowel_cancer_project_report_2011_web.pdf. (Accessed July 2014)

[7] Men’s Sheds. http://menssheds.org.uk/ (Accessed December 2014)

[8] Man MOT http://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/Haringey (Accessed December 2014)


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