Wednesday, 25 September 2013

30 years on: 
Dad, men's health and me

I can’t quite believe it, but it’s 30 years since Dad died, at the ridiculously young age of 62. He had prostate cancer. It’s his illness and death as much as anything that set me on my course of health journalism: I wanted to do something that might help reduce the chance of other families having similar experiences. Looking back today, it amazes me how much some things have changed for the better. But it also shocks me that some things remain stubbornly the same.

I’ve never forgotten my Mum’s look of desolate, desperate abandonment minutes after Dad’s doctor had pulled her aside during a routine hospital visit to brusquely tell her there was nothing more to be done: Dad had weeks, possibly days to live. And though I know that prostate cancer now has a much higher profile and that support services for patients and families are much better than they used to be, I also know that many thousands of patients, families and loved ones are still left feeling desperate.

Having written about cancer for two decades, I’ve seen the remarkable scientific advances that have been made. Had my Dad been in a similar position today, I have no doubt that he would have had months or years to live, not weeks. 

But there have not been similar advances in understanding or addressing the psychological impact of cancer and other illness. What concerned me then, and still concerns me now, is not so much illness in itself, but how how illness affects us in our heads, how it shapes our whole outlook on the world. Illness is grim.

In fact, I’m more concerned than ever. Because not only are people made sad and anxious by illness, they are increasingly becoming sad and anxious because of the prospect of illness. In the past 30 years, policy makers, doctors, researchers may have have striven so hard to give us all physical health, that they’ve forgotten what the objective of their work is: to allow people to lead happy, fulfilled lives. 

Now, it seems, we’re making people unhappy with unnecessary worry about their health, unnecessary tests, unnecessary treatments – treatments that in turn can lead to illness. I’m particularly worried about men. There’s a lot of finger-wagging that goes on when it comes to men’s health: “Men should look after themselves better.” “Men should visit the doctor more often.” “Men should talk about their health like women.” 

What it adds up to is that men are being encouraged to worry about their health. Which might have some merit if they were told to worry about the right things. But they’re not: they’re being encouraged to do and think things that have little or no evidence behind them. As this blog progresses, you’ll hear more about that. 

I suppose what I'm saying is that when I started out as a health journalist, I was concerned about acts of omission in health services. Now I'm just as concerned about acts of commission.

Oh the irony. Here I am, a health journalist worried that we’re becoming too obsessed with health. Bang goes the day job.

Here's me and Dad, in his prime, in 1968.