Banna, itseng mabele a lona

Cancer Association Botswana PIC: KABO MPAETONA
Cancer Association Botswana PIC: KABO MPAETONA

Unthinkable as it sounds, men can and are developing breast cancer as witnessed by rising cases in Botswana. As Mmegi wraps up its coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, looks beyond the male ego and discovers that with cancer, ignorance is anything but bliss

Whether he is willing to admit it or not, every man for most of his life blissfully drifts about with little thought about his own mortality.

Coupled with the masculine macho, both instinctive and taught socially, men are far less likely to concern themselves with their long-term health or the effects thereupon of their habits today.

At health outposts, clinics and hospitals, women make up the majority of people in queues, a trend that can also be found in the attendance at health fairs, wellness days and virtually any activity that involves health. Even at HIV testing and counselling centres, women easily outnumber men, who would rather sit at home and find out their status by proxy.

In its various outreach programmes spreading awareness, the Cancer Association of Botswana (CAB) has noted the generally low numbers of men who turn up for screening. “We have noticed that for some men, being sick can be seen as a sign of weakness and they would rather sit at home and take home remedies,” says CAB representative, Sharon Munyoro.

“There are societal influences at work. Men are always up and about and women are the ones who can stand in the line for health information, tests and screenings.”

The indifference to health among men is at its peak during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as the illness is viewed as exclusively a female problem.

From 2003 to 2007, breast cancer was the third leading cancer-affecting women in Botswana and contributed to 15.4 percent of the total new cancer cases diagnosis.

In the years since then, however, the disease has become the second most common cancer affecting local women, after cervical. Breast cancer, according to available figures, accounted for 13.2 percent of the 400 female cancer deaths in 2012, coming second again after cervical cancer.

However, as officials point out, breast cancer among men is also being found in Botswana, and in males, the disease is more lethal.

“Both men and women have breasts and can develop breast cancer,” says a local health expert.

“For men, the disease is far more aggressive. In women, because their breasts are fleshier, the cancer takes time to move to vital organs, but in men it spreads quickly.”

Due to their general reluctance to regularly consult health care professionals, as well as their view that it is a women’s issue, breast cancer in men is often diagnosed very late, leading to high death rates.

In addition, the stigma surrounding the disease among local males, where it is viewed as a women’s illness, means many sufferers go to the grave undiagnosed, leaving research and data about its prevalence, scanty at best.

“A few men in Botswana have been diagnosed with breast cancer, but because of the stigma, its very rare for a man to come out and say he has it,” explains Munyoro.

“The men who are being diagnosed with it are being diagnosed in the later stages, far later than women.  Generally all cancers are diagnosed late, but with men its even later and that is because with men, accessing health facilities is less of a priority, compared to women.”

While men have in the past generally shunned the CAB’s breast cancer screenings – where attendees are checked for suspicious lumps in the breasts – the tide appears to be turning slowly.

Munyoro notes that when the association conducted breast cancer screening in Gaborone, Francistown and Mahalapye recently, men in the second city turned up in large numbers and participated.

As word of mouth awareness spreads through the CAB’s network of young volunteers drawn from around the country, more men are softening their attitudes towards breast and other types of cancers.

Volunteers are largely drawn from the University of Botswana and when the semester ends, the young men and women take their cancer awareness home to their parents.

The composition of the volunteers also demonstrates the higher participation of men, including those whom Munyoro says ‘come rain or sunshine’ are always ready to help the CAB in its activities.

More good news on the gender front was evident recently during a cancer awareness presentation, when two men proudly volunteered to demonstrate and perform a breast examination on themselves.

“I also received a call last week from a man who said he had a lump in his testes and that’s because he had just heard about cancer awareness as more people were talking about it,” reveals Munyoro.

“He has since gone for testing on that.”

Where October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month allowed some men to hide their heads in the sand and point the finger at women, November is not so forgiving.

For health activists worldwide, November is known as ‘Movember’, an annual event involving the growing of moustaches during the month of November to raise awareness of men’s health issues, such as depression, prostate cancer and other male cancers.

In Botswana, CAB is at the forefront of Movember activities and takes the opportunity to reach out to men still unwilling to put their hands up in health awareness.

By associating Movember with the ‘macho’ act of growing one’s moustache, health activists have been able to attract more men to the various health-related activities which, for Botswana, even include gender violence.

“We have a lot of work to do in getting men involved in their own health and the great thing is that there’s Movember where we can focus on men’s health, from spiritual, financial and others,” explains Munyoro.

“It’s all about men’s health in totality. In Botswana we have also included gender violence with men and boys as victims.”

Another fun activity that is drawing more men towards health awareness activities and the fight against cancer specifically, is the annual Stiletto Walk where all participants, male and female, dress up in pink and wear stilettos for a sponsored walk.

This year, the walk’s ninth anniversary, takes place tomorrow (Saturday) from Rail Park Mall to the Central Business District, a distance of about three kilometres.

According to Munyoro, while men dressed in pink and walking in stilettos is a fun activity on its own, there is a deeper significance towards the Stiletto Walk.

“Putting on those stilettos is symbolic of someone developing cancer. You walk with difficulty in those high heels just like the person who has cancer also struggles and it’s about balance.

“You get blisters from the walk and the person with cancer also has treatments that leave them with scars that sometimes never go away.

“It’s about empathising with patients.”

Empathising is a role the modern man is only too happy to embrace, being an opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible to be macho and sensitive at the same time.

With greater participation by men, activists hope future Itse Mabele a Gago, breast cancer awareness campaigns will evolve into a more inclusive and effective affair.

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