At age 23, Angel Hawkins is one of the youngest members of Cayman’s Mo’ Bro fraternity – an enthusiastic group of men – and women – who come together each November in the name of men’s health.
The month-long event of Movember – a portmanteau of moustache and November – encourages men worldwide to grow their facial hair in a show of solidarity with male cancer survivors.
Three months out from his last – and hopefully final – chemotherapy treatment, Mr. Hawkins now falls among their ranks.
Born and raised in Cayman, the St. Ignatius graduate first suspected something was wrong with his body earlier this year while living in Colombia.
Like many others residing in Providencia Island, Mr. Hawkins preferred riding a motorcycle as his main form of transportation. But the ride became uncomfortable.
“I noticed it became more irritating and a nuisance to ride a motorcycle,” he said.
Eventually, walking became awkward for him as well.
That is when Mr. Hawkins began to inspect himself and found a hard lump by his groin. For a young man living far from home, the discovery was frightening.
“All of my family was here in Cayman and I was in Colombia. So I did my best to remain calm, ask questions,” he said.
“Then I went to see the local doctor and he told me, ‘Yeah, this is something serious, you probably want to go find a center or return home for treatment.’”
Faced with a diagnosis of testicular cancer, Mr. Hawkins flew back to Cayman, where he could rely on the support of family, friends and a familiar medical system.
While his treatment required surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, he considers himself lucky.
He was able to receive most of his treatment on island, thanks in large part to the addition of a full-time oncologist at Cayman Islands Hospital. And last month, he received the good news he had been waiting for: “I got the call clarifying that I am cancer free. So I am a survivor and I am here to help bring awareness to men’s health and to kids’ health, to try to be more aware of what’s going on with your body.”
Bringing attention to stories like that of Mr. Hawkins is a major goal of Movember. The idea is to get men talking about their bodies and to encourage their friends to do the same. Mr. Hawkins learned that rather than ignoring aches and pains, men should pay attention to them.
“With me being a rugby player, I tend to try to ignore pain. Any little nudge or if I feel like my joints are weak, I try to ignore it and just keep playing, because the game of rugby is a rough sport, so you’re going to get some knocks,” he said.
“But my first suggestion is not to ignore those pains. If you feel like it’s something serious, see your doctor as soon as possible, because it could turn out to be something a lot more serious and life threatening.”
Mo’ Bros unite
Movember veteran and committee member Dave O’Driscoll knows how difficult it can be to get many men to open up about their bodies. As a self-described “man’s man,” Mr. O’Driscoll wants to make the topic of men’s health accessible and shame free.
“It’s touchy subject – to use a pun for men,” Mr. O’Driscoll said with a laugh.
While the conversation may revolve around a serious subject, Mr. O’Driscoll aims to keep it light-hearted – a characteristic highlighted by Movember’s raucous closing and opening parties. This year’s launch event will kick off Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. at The King’s Head in Camana Bay. There, participants can register and men can get a shave to start off their month with a clean slate.
The closing ceremony is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 30, at The Lodge. With the Mo’ Bros dressed to impress – last year Mr. O’Driscoll arrived as Goldmember from Austin Powers – the final party is not one to be missed. But first comes the message.
“Testicular cancer is all about examining yourself and then knowing when you feel something there that isn’t natural, that you go to your [doctor] and you tell them about it,” he said.
“A lot of times men are too proud to tell anybody that anything is wrong with them or with their body. … Get yourself checked out. Don’t be stupid. If you can ask your friend a question or if you see your friend in trouble and see they need help, then that’s you breaking down barriers, that’s you being stronger than anybody else.”
By the time men are in their late 30s, Mr. O’Driscoll recommends they begin thinking about prostate and testicular cancer screenings. By their late 40s and 50s, checkups with a doctor should become regular.
This was a lesson that David Robinson, 68, learned the hard way. While he had been diligent about seeing his doctor to manage an enlarged prostate, he had neglected to get regular colonoscopies. After crunching the numbers with his wife, he realized it had been seven years since his last one.
“That alarmed me some. So I got an introduction to a gastroenterologist here and had the colonoscopy,” he said.
The results came back positive for cancer.
“They determined the tumor was operable in the sigmoid colon with possible hot spots in the lymph nodes, so they recommended an operation first and chemo and radiation afterwards,” he said.
While his battle continues, Mr. Robinson has already learned a lot – starting with the importance of keeping copies of medical records and staying on top of regular exams. He encourages others to educate themselves and shop around for the best advice.
“When you’re diagnosed, read the literature and try to understand the disease and the process, what questions to ask,” he said.
“Be prepared to help manage the process yourself.”
By reaching out to friends, men can help break down stigmas and get their buddies on a healthy track, Mr. O’Driscoll says. Shane Connolly, 54, is one of the friends that he has encouraged to open up and stay active with Movember activities.
As a 27-year survivor of throat cancer, Mr. Connolly now finds it easy to discuss and even joke about his experience.
Pointing to the bare skin on his neck, he says with a laugh, “One of the benefits of having cancer and radiotherapy is I don’t have to actually shave under [the chin].”
When he was diagnosed as a young man, cancer felt like a death sentence.
“Everyone knew someone who had it but it was like a curse. It was just like the plague; there was no coming back from it,” he said.
“Then it definitely had a stigma. Now it’s more fundraisers, people shaving their heads. Everyone is aware. Everyone knows someone who’s had it or got it.”
As treatments have improved and awareness has grown, cancer has become an easier topic to discuss, he says. But Mr. Connolly sees that there is still work to be done when it comes to breaking down health stigmas.
The next goal for the men of Movember will be opening the conversation about depression.
“Movember is also [about] mental health issues. What I see now, from a privileged [perspective] is how cancer was then, this underlying thing, mental [health] – male or female – has got that [stigma] now,” Mr. Connolly said.
“I’ve had friends who have took that choice [suicide]. It’s not an easy one. But we need to bring that into the same light as we do [with cancer].”
In the end, the hope is to get men aware and comfortable about their bodies and their minds.
“You get your mind straightened out, your body is going to follow a lot easier,” Mr. Connolly said.
For those who are uncertain about where to start the conversation or where to seek help, the Movember committee offers a wealth of resources. Its beneficiary, the Cayman Islands Cancer Society, offers free cancer screenings and resources throughout the year. Information nights will also be held throughout the month of November. More information can be found about those events online at www.movember.ky.
One of the easiest ways to get started is to attend the opening night on Thursday at The King’s Head and get signed up, Mr. O’Driscoll said.
“Then you start growing your moustache.”