Men’s health – what are we so afraid of?

The term “men’s health” often garners little attention and goes overlooked. In particular, as Caribbean men, our pride causes us to ignore the reality that we are vulnerable to illness, but the reality is that we are.

Men’s health refers to gender-specific urologic conditions, mainly prostate health, sexual libido and erectile function. Certainly, given the nature of these topics one can see why there is reluctance by men to take charge of these issues.

The embarrassment and, potential state of vulnerability, are obvious barriers to that process. However, when we realize what is at stake, i.e., our quality of life and longevity, then it becomes apparent that we should put aside our pride and take charge of our health.

A men’s health checkup involves a testicular exam, a digital rectal exam (DRE) and a Prostate Specific Antigen, or PSA, blood test, all of which can be done by your general/family doctor or your urologist. The testicular exam is used to check for testicular cancer, which is highly curable when found early.

The other tests are screening tools to look for prostate cancer, which is the most common cancer in men. PSA is a blood test that checks for a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. The prostate gland is an organ, about the size of a walnut, that sits between the bladder and the urinary tube (or urethra) and its main function is to produce substances that allow semen to remain liquefied.

The second prostate test, a DRE, causes anxiety for men, but it need not be so. It is a quick, less than one minute exam wherein the doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger to feel the prostate and assess for size and presence of any firm nodules.

Both the PSA and DRE are needed to screen for prostate cancer. It is important to note that neither test actually diagnoses cancer. Instead they are used as screening tools to see whether an additional testing procedure is necessary.

The additional procedure is called a needle-biopsy, and this actually diagnoses prostate cancer by sampling small pieces of prostate tissue which are then inspected under a microscope for cancerous cells. Not all men need to be checked for prostate cancer, but if you are between the ages of 55 and 70 years old and in good health, then the American Urological Association recommends getting checked.

For men of African ancestry or those with a family history of prostate cancer, it may be worth getting checked as early as 40 years old.

If diagnosed at early stages, prostate cancer is extremely curable with surgery (robotic or traditional/open) and/or radiation. In specific cases, it may not even require treatment at all and can simply be observed with repeat tests over time. However, if caught late, there is a high risk of cancer spreading to other organs, pain and ultimately death. There is no need for these simple tests to cause anxiety. Men, particularly those who are fathers and husbands, owe it to their loved ones to “man up” and take charge of their health. A discussion with your doctor about men’s health might cause a few minutes of anxiety but may be worth a lifetime.

Dr. Chad Ritch is assistant professor of urology at the University of Miami.