Why do men find it so hard to discuss their health? As a campaign launches to raise awareness of male cancers, the Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden talks to two survivors

The actor Richard Madden pictured with his father, Richard: ‘I can wield a sword and lead an army, but I’m also not afraid to talk about my balls’ (Darren Gerrish)

My dad told me last year that he was going to get his prostate checked. It’s just his age, he said. He’s 63, but it took me by surprise. I’m very close to my dad, but haven’t spoken much to him about these kind of health issues. It got me thinking, why not? Today is Father’s Day, and it marks the launch of Father & Son Day, a new campaign in support of cancer care and treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Set up by Daniel Marks, director and partner of the PR agency the Communications Store, and the writer Jack Dyson, who founded the creative agency Dysonology, the aim is not only to raise money, but also to start a conversation about male cancers and celebrate men and their mentors.

Both Daniel, 43, and Jack, 39, have had testicular cancer — Daniel when he was 17 and Jack when he was 27. Both men’s fathers also had cancer. Daniel’s dad, now 84, survived prostate cancer two years ago. Jack’s father died of bowel cancer three years ago, aged 69. Before their diagnoses, none of the men had ever discussed their swollen testicles, erectile or bladder dysfunction or disrupted toilet habits.

At 28, I have been thinking about how my friends and I discuss — or don’t discuss — our health issues. Men don’t really have those kind of chats, but we should. For men the risk of developing cancer before the age of 50 is 1 in 35, and collectively about 67,000 men are diagnosed with prostate, bowel or testicular cancer each year. As with all cancers, the earlier the diagnosis, the greater the chance of recovery. Fortunately, survival rates are improving all the time. But I’d much rather have five awkward minutes talking to my dad about his prostate and my testicles than weeks or months of awkward times in a hospital.

Father & Son Day is asking men to post a picture on social media of themselves, together with a man who is important in their lives, both in a blue shirt, and using the hashtag #FatherandSonDay — not just today, but any day. Pretty easy, right? You don’t even have to get covered in icy water.

Financial donations will go to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity to fund psychological support for young men with cancer and new training for surgeons in using state-of-the-art robotic equipment.

In Game of Thrones, I played the macho character Robb Stark. Hopefully, playing a role like that can help connect this conversation with young men — because I can wield a sword and lead an army, but I’m also not afraid to talk about my balls. To get started, I meet with up Daniel and Jack to talk bollocks — literally.

Daniel Marks: I was 17 when I had testicular cancer. I’d been 6ft 4in since I was 12 and was uncomfortable in my own skin. Everything was getting bigger, so I thought it was normal that one testicle was four times the size of the other. At that time, everything was embarrassing, and I was not very communicative with my family about health issues, certainly not my father. One day I had a burst blood vessel in my testis because the tumour had got so big. I went into hospital; the testicle was removed, sent off for testing — and it was cancerous. That was probably the worst night I’ve ever had.

Jack Dyson: I was lucky. I found mine in time. I had classic symptoms: an ache in my abdomen and an enlarged testicle. I went to see my GP and was rushed to hospital. The ultrasound guy did the scan and went quiet. I said, “What’s on the TV?” and he said, “Nothing good tonight, mate.”

Daniel: I’ve got one younger and two older brothers. I didn’t think to talk to them. It was a male-centric family. Boys talked about playing hookie from school and showing off about their achievements.

Jack: I have three sisters, so it’s slightly different. When my dad got ill, we realised he had put on a weird sort of weight around his midriff. My mum, sisters and I noticed before he did. Even then, he kept saying, “I’m fine.”

Richard Madden: I have an older and a younger sister. Not surprisingly, I wouldn’t choose to talk to them about my balls, but if I was worried, then of course they would be open to it. Luckily (depending on how you see things), my mum never shies away from these kinds of conversation.

Daniel: I now talk to my dad because we’ve both been through cancer. I asked him how he first knew he had prostate cancer. He said, “I was walking along with your mum and I absolutely had to pee. I had to go in a bus shelter. I was also finding it tough to get an erection.” It did make me feel slightly uncomfortable, because shouldn’t we be talking about work or cricket? That kind of conversation should happen more between men.

Richard: Guys talk about their shit patterns all the time. Why is that we can talk about poo easier than we can talk about balls?

Jack: You might talk about the surface effects, but you might not say, “Over the past three months, I’ve been needing to go to the loo more often.”

Daniel: Or “I’ve been finding it hard to get an erection”.

Jack: There’s an acceptable level of conversation and then there’s the overshare.

Daniel: That’s the feeling we’ve got to break. If I’d had a proper conversation with my dad, I probably wouldn’t have had to have six months of chemotherapy.

Richard In those days, when you were 17, would they freeze sperm?

Daniel: Yes. The “tissue collector” came round. I’d left it so late, my sperm count was too low to do anything with.

Jack: Cancer treatment can affect your fertility. I didn’t need chemo, but I had samples frozen just in case. I went back recently and the consultant said: “After your treatment, your count was average. At your second sample, you were basically infertile.” That was when my father was dying. The most recent sample, which I didn’t need to use, was like super-sperm. I’m going to be a dad soon.

Richard: I’m not a father, but I hope to be one day. I think you have to lead by example. If I was, say, 14 and my dad mentioned he had just read about testicular cancer and suggested, “Take a look at this website, son,” it would let me know he wasn’t embarrassed to talk.

Jack: I didn’t go for a prosthetic, because it’s another operation. Now I’m used to it. For a while after, whenever I met a girl, I would sit her down and say, “Now, you know Nemo has his lucky fin…” I was sure it would be so obvious, but actually no one really ever noticed. I was almost disappointed.

Daniel: I decided in my thirties to have a prosthetic. My husband and I have been together for 20 years, so it’s not because I desperately wanted to go to the beach and wear a tanga thong. I’d just had enough of being reminded of what I’d been through every day.

Jack: When it happens to you, some people just disappear, because they don’t have the tools to say, “Are you all right?” Then I have some Swedish mates who say, “Give us a look.”

Richard: Recently a mate told me that the last three times he’d been unable to get it up. We discussed whether it was a case of too much lager or what else could be causing it. We don’t have a problem with that conversation. Hopefully, it keeps us all healthy. The only thing getting in the way is embarrassment. But people get cancer. It happens. Let’s all talk about it and find it as early as we can.

Support the campaign by uploading a picture of you with an important man in your life to Twitter or Instagram, with the hashtags #FatherAndSonDay and #InspiringMen. To donate, text MARSDEN to 70800. Buy a blue shirt from mrporter.com/mens/list/father_and_son, and all profits go to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Find out more at fatherandsonday.com

Interviews From 2015

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