Sunday, 2 February 2014

A letter to Bill Bailey part 2: the scary bits

Dear Bill Bailey

Hyena Reality/Free Digital Photos
Here is my (probably not) much-awaited second letter to you. As you’ll remember, I’ve got worries about the messages that Prostate Cancer UK is putting out as part of their Men United campaign – a campaign that, with your involvement, is already having widespread coverage on television, in print media and online.

Prostate Cancer UK – and in particular its Chief Executive Owen Sharp –  has taken to saying as part of the campaign that “by 2030, prostate cancer will be the most common cancer”. Scary.

It’s certainly a useful message to spread if you’re an organisation that wants to raise awareness and lots of money – make prostate cancer have the same sort of public impact as breast cancer. 

Unfortunately, it’s also badly misleading to the public. Money shouldn’t be raised by throwing around convenient statistics to frighten people, when they are only a small part of a complex picture.

The figure much quoted by PCUK comes from a study in the British Journal of Cancer in 2011, which predicted that prostate cancer incidence among men would rise 2% between 2007 and 2030 (doesn’t sound quite so frightening does it?). 

It also stated that, although the estimated rise in cases of prostate is partly attributable to an ageing population, it is also the result of more and more men having PSA tests, uncovering disease that wouldn’t previously have ever been known about.

The authors give an explicit warning: “There is considerable uncertainty,” they say, “in predicting prostate cancer incidence, which is being driven not only by an inherent increase in risk of the disease, but also by the over-diagnosis (and over-treatment) as a consequence of testing with PSA.” 

In other words, increased awareness of prostate cancer causes more prostate cancer. Men Utd, ironically, will raise the incidence of prostate cancer.

I hope you understand that there is no way I want to belittle prostate cancer and its impact. My father died of it, I am at higher risk than most men. But Prostate Cancer UK and Movember (which have been increasingly closely aligned) want to make prostate cancer into a men’s version of breast cancer – same high profile, same kind of campaigns, same fundraising clout – without learning the lessons from breast cancer, without thinking how prostate cancer is different than breast cancer, and without thinking about the costs of getting things wrong. The cost, unfortunately, will be a very large number of men suffering unnecessarily. 

If PCUK really wants to help men it needs to be responsible. It needs to recognise that powerful fundraising messages aren’t the same as valuable public education messages. I hope you will discuss this with them.

Thank you for reading this. Now I will leave you alone to be wonderful, funny and inspiring again.