A TIME magazine opinion column today asks, “When Is ‘Awareness’ Awareness Month?“ The timing of the column is excellent, coming, as it does, in the season of prostate cancer and breast cancer awareness campaigns, Pinktober and Movember et al. Excerpts:
” ‘Awareness’ is a virus that preys on well-meaning minds. It tricks us into thinking that thought is the same as action, that acknowledging something is the same as fixing it. Awareness is a problem masquerading as a solution. … Let’s raise awareness about the danger of empty ‘awareness.’ Let’s spread the word about only spreading the word.”
One of the examples raised in the article is this:
“Look at the new testicular-cancer-awareness #FeelingNuts campaign, which was recently endorsed by Hugh Jackman when he tweeted a picture of himself holding his own (clothed) balls. The scrotum-squeeze has gone viral, but how much money has been raised to fight testicular cancer? It’s hard to tell, because the campaign doesn’t require any kind of donation, unlike the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. And there’s no evidence that the thousands who take pictures of themselves holding their balls are doing any kind of actual screening– they could easily be using the campaign as an excuse for a crotch-grab selfie.”
Just last week I heard about a cancer survivor pushing a massive testicle across America. It’s described as “an attempt to raise awareness of testicular cancer.” His is an awful story of a terrible cancer. But there are important facts people are not likely to hear in such awareness campaigns. For example, on his website, the ball-pusher writes:
“The best way for men to be proactive is to do a monthly self-exam of their testicles to check for lumps, hardness or swelling. It’s easy to do in the shower.”
“No studies have been done to find out if testicular self-exams, regular exams by a doctor, or other screening tests in men with no symptoms would decrease the risk of dying from this disease. However, routine screening probably would not decrease the risk of dying from testicular cancer. This is partly because testicular cancer can usually be cured at any stage.”
And the NCI reminds people that there can be harm from such screening; it can lead to unnecessary diagnostic testing that may introduce its own cascade of harms.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends against screening for testicular cancer in adolescent or adult men. The group states:
“Screening by self-examination or clinician examination is unlikely to offer meaningful health benefits, given the very low incidence and high cure rate of even advanced testicular cancer. Potential harms include false-positive results, anxiety, and harms from diagnostic tests or procedures.”
In a nutshell, the unfortunate story of one man’s cancer doesn’t mean that all men need to start checking themselves – or being checked – for the same problem.
I can hear it coming already – people writing, “Well you didn’t lose a loved one to testicular cancer or you wouldn’t write this.” Don’t. I’m not going to respond.
It’s not me dreaming this stuff up: it’s what evidence-based experts wrote. Look again at what I posted above.
If you want to ignore the evidence and push a ball across America, or test your own in the shower, have at it.
But in promoting awareness, we should promote accurate, balanced and complete information as well.
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