Sunday, 29 September 2013

Be aware, be very aware...

On Tuesday everything will go pink: t-shirts, mineral water bottles, cricket whites, websites, feather boas. Yes, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and breast cancer charities are again encouraging women around the world to raise money for research, and to be aware about breast cancer.
The following month, everything is going hairy: November is Movember – and this time it will be men who are encouraged to be aware of prostate and testicular cancer whilst sprouting facial growths.

Also during October and November, we’ll also have our heartstrings and purses tugged by Lupus Awareness Month, World Mental Health Day, World Sight Day, World Arthritis Day, World Osteoporosis Day, International Stammering Awareness Day, World Psoriasis Day, National Stress Awareness Day, Food Allergy Week and World Diabetes Day.

Quite understandably, health charities are constantly calling out for our attention. They want to raise awareness so that people who have certain conditions are treated properly and people who don’t have them don’t get them. They’re extremely adept at using marketing principles to engage us in all sorts of ways (even by growing Village People style moustaches).
But to those on the receiving end it’s confusing. So many conditions that need our “awareness”. So many that might affect me or my family. Which are most deserving of my attention? The marketing, and the statistics thrown around, makes them all sound a priority. 
Journalists like myself are constantly appealed to by charity PR people. Recently the Rarer Cancers Foundation told me that rare cancers are as deserving of our attention as breast cancer because together they make up half of all the cancer cases in the UK. I looked into it. The figures added up. I believed them, and start wondering about my chances of having myeloma, myelodysplastic syndrome or gastrointestinal stromal tumour.
Then I saw an impressive report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies which said that more people are dying of liver disease than ever before, and that men who drink every day are particularly at risk. That sounds like me, and many men I know. So that sounds worth worrying about too.
And now as Movember approaches, I’m being told that a man dies every hour from  prostate cancer and I should be more “aware”. But I’m not sure what that means for me.
This brings a new type of hypochondria. We want to make sense of all those scary statistics, but have no idea how to compare them. Subconsciously, we end up a bit scared of everything and go into denial. Perhaps some of us men pretend we’re immortal so that we can ignore it all.
This isn’t the organisations’ fault. They’re all doing their best to raise their voices above the clamour. But when you combine their messages with newspaper articles about health (mea culpa), academic and research institutions trying to convince us that an issue is important because they need funding, and a neighbour telling you how awful it was that her brother in law dropped dead from an aortic aneurysm, it all becomes overwhelming. We start jumping to random conclusions. 
Public appeals aren’t tailored to our own needs, our lives, our genetic make-ups. All these appeals have no “us” context. What do we do with them?
  1. ignore them all, and live oblivious until we get very ill
  2. take heed of them all, and live on our nerves until we get very ill (probably a bit later)
  3. work out what each one means mean for us. Somehow.