Young men are being bullied into examining themselves for testicular cancer. It’s not very dignified, says Brendan O’Neill, and may do more harm than good
Why is New Britain so obsessed with its young men’s testicles? If, like me, you are aged between 15 and 34 you will almost certainly have been advised by a doctor or a magazine feature or a glossy poster in a GP’s waiting room to test yourself regularly for signs of testicular cancer (or the Big TC for short).
Health authorities and cancer charities are spending millions of pounds on ‘raising awareness’ of this disease, in order to keep us blokes on full alert for anything abnormal in the underwear department. They want us to subscribe to a regime of TSE, testicular self-examination, where you examine yourself once a month for lumps or bumps. And only 100 per cent compliance with TSE will do; there was much tut-tutting among the health apparatchiks at the end of May when a survey conducted by Macmillan Cancer Relief found that 50 per cent of young men never test themselves.
I had the opposite reaction — I couldn’t believe that the other 50 per cent of young men were testing themselves. TSE, you see, is an utter waste of time as a disease detector; its real aim is to turn young men into quivering, apologetic, health-obsessed wrecks. It’s a regime to which young men everywhere should just say no — or bollocks.
TSE must be carried out once a month. Apparently it is best done after a bath or a shower, when the skin of the scrotum is relaxed. You hold the scrotum in the palm of your hand and roll each testicle between your thumb and forefingers, feeling for lumps or swellings. James, 27, has dutifully been doing his monthly TSE for the past three years. ‘When you first start it’s a little bit scary,’ he says. ‘I thought I found a lump but then I realised it was only my epididymis, the tube that carries and stores sperm.’ He says TSE has helped him to ‘get to know’ his genitals.
If you’re a young bloke, there is no escaping the message that your testicles are potentially harbouring a fatal disease and that only a strict regime of TSE can save you. The Men’s Health Forum, the body that is behind many of the scare stories about men’s health today, goes around schools and colleges telling teens about the importance of TSE. A primetime TV ad sponsored by Everyman, a campaign set up by the Institute of Cancer Research to heighten awareness of male cancers, had the pop star Robbie Williams walking along a Malibu beach wearing a pair of Gazza-style false lady breasts. ‘If you men paid more attention to these,’ said Robbie, grabbing his testicles, ‘instead of these [pointing to the lady breasts], then maybe fewer of us would be dying of testicular cancer.’
Sky One has screened a documentary called Better Mind Your Bollocks, featuring celebrities talking candidly about their private parts in an attempt to encourage other young men to do likewise. Topman, the cheap and cheerful clothes stores for blokes, supports the annual Male Cancer Awareness Month by producing T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Bollocks to cancer’ and ‘I love my balls’. It even sold a range of underwear that came with instructions on how to do TSE printed on the inside.
In 2002, BBC Wales joined forces with the NHS to bombard young Welshmen with info about testicular cancer. Stuart Cable, the then drummer with the Welsh rock band Stereophonics, featured in a TV ad telling Welshmen, ‘It’s simple, boys — bollock cancer can happen to anyone. Me, you, your brother, your best mate. Basically if you’re between 18 and 35, you’re on the hit list!’ The solution? You guessed it — monthly TSE.
These campaigns are profoundly misleading. How weird that they rarely give exact numbers for deaths by testicular cancer, settling instead for sweeping statements such as: testicular cancer is ‘the fourth biggest killer’ of men aged 15 to 34 or it’s the ‘commonest cancer that affects young men’ or we’re all on some deathly ‘hit list’. The truth is that the Big TC is exceptionally rare. Last year 73 men in England and Wales died of testicular cancer. In the age groups targeted by the TSE lobby, only handfuls died — four men aged 15 to 24 and 10 men aged 25 to 34 were killed by the disease. That is 14 deaths in a population of millions of young men. With a 95 per cent cure rate, testicular cancer is one of the most curable cancers there is.
There is no evidence that TSE is any good for detecting TC anyway. Testicular cancer manifests itself clearly enough to be spotted without the monthly fumble down the front of your Calvin Kleins. Indeed, some now claim that TSE can cause more harm than good. In an editorial in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, Professor Malcolm Law of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London wrote, ‘Breast self-examination and testicular self-examination are further examples of the failure to apply scientific rigour to screening. Both have been widely advocated on an assumption that they must be beneficial and cannot do harm; neither should be advocated.’
Dr Tony Copperfield, the pseudonym used by a GP from Essex who writes for Doctor magazine, says TSE campaigns have created a generation of panicky young men taking up doctors’ precious time and resources. ‘You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s currently an epidemic of testicular cancer, such is the publicity it receives. There isn’t. There’s an epidemic of anxious men.’ Copperfield says that as young men are encouraged to obsess over their privates, ‘the queue at the ultrasound department lengthens — the irony being that the rare poor sod who needs the test will have to wait that bit longer’.
So why are we young men being told by TV ads, health campaigners and smug celebs to feel ourselves up once a month lest we fall victim to the Big TC? Why are health groups and charities spending millions on encouraging us to carry out a self-examination that does not work for a disease that is extremely rare? And more to the point, why are 50 per cent of us apparently doing it?
TSE has little to do with detecting disease — it is about remaking men for our health-obsessed times. The main concern of the TSE brigade, and the rest of the burgeoning men’s health movement, is that young men are too cocky, arrogant and self-sufficient at a time when we’re supposed to be self-reflective, vulnerable and constantly concerned about our personal health. TSE campaigners complain that young men are unlikely to go to the doctor if they feel unwell (perhaps believing themselves to be invincible) and are unlikely to talk openly about personal problems (perhaps believing that such things are best kept to themselves). One American cancer awareness newsletter reckons that the reason young men don’t talk testicles is that they have a ‘false bravado based on traditional male behaviour — the warrior — who races, plays football, and so on’.
TSE is about hitting young men where it hurts. What better way to bring these ‘warriors’ down a level than by grabbing them by the balls — or, even better, getting them to grab themselves by the balls on a monthly basis? TSE leaves young men naked and vulnerable with bath-shrivelled scrotums in hand, tentatively feeling their own crown jewels for signs of sickness and death. There could be no more fitting image of today’s emasculated young male.
Brendan O’Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.