We spend plenty of time these days talking about the changing role of women in business and the community at large. We regularly champion the need for greater diversity in terms of gender, race and sexuality. And so we should.
But there’s another need out there. Because we don’t spend much time talking about men. And men don’t spend much time talking about themselves. And that’s a problem.
You see, we lose more men to prostate cancer than we lose women to breast cancer. We lose more men to mental health and suicide than we do other parts of our country’s demographic.
Many of those losses are preventable. Regular medical checks, early intervention and good conversations can change bad statistics. But men don’t spend much time talking about themselves. And that’s a problem.
So we need to do something about it.
My mate Paul and I have decided to have a go at changing the way we talk about men and the way men talk to each other. We’re not experts on mental health or prostate cancer. But we want to try to help those who are experts.
You see, in the past 12 months we have experienced close family members and friends being affected by these two illnesses that impact men. Part of the problem is that men, and rural, Māori and Pasifika men in particular, are often guilty of not looking after themselves, or for that matter talking about their health. As a result, men’s health issues are often discovered too late. And lateness equals sadness.
When your mates get sick, you start to take notice. As with anything, once you take an interest in something, you learn more and more.
We learned from the Mental Health Foundation statistics that we lost 607 people to suicide last year. Their report goes on to say, somewhat predictably, that men are three to four times more likely than women to die as a result of suicide.
Why so predictable? Because men don’t spend much time talking about themselves. And that’s a problem.
And we also learned that prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer (apart from skin cancer) in Kiwi men, and according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, 4000 men are diagnosed and about 700 die from the disease every year. Prostate cancer is a single-sex disease and yet it is the third-highest cause of death from cancer after lung cancer(1600 deaths per year) and bowel cancer (1200).
The prostate cancer statistics are eerily similar to the 3300 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year and the 650 related deaths.
And yet lung cancer and bowel cancer have nationally organised health programmes to deal with the problem.
Breast cancer is a charity juggernaut where funds are available to screen, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate its unfortunate patients.
But women are better organised. Women talk about stuff. So they have better funding, better treatment and better solutions. Men on the other hand … well, men don’t spend much time talking about themselves. And that’s a problem.
So Paul and I are cycling along the country roads of New Zealand from North Cape to Bluff. That’s about 2600km — 100-plus kilometres per day. We’re going to catch up with the people of this country, ride with them and hopefully have a beer with them.
And we’re raising money. Our goal is $200,000 to be shared equally between two charities.
Having established mental health and prostate cancer as our causes of choice, the next step was to select an individual charity in each category.
Navigating the charity sector is not for the faint-hearted. So we did some research.
We discovered that farmers in New Zealand experience levels of stress and pressure that can increase their risks of poor mental health and suicide. Farmers get a tough time in this country. They run businesses that are always affected by weather, export prices and government policy. The ute tax will upset them. They often carry plenty of debt, which is no fun when interest rates go up. And of course, they spend a lot of time on their own.
And many of them don’t talk much.
So we introduced ourselves to the people at Farmstrong. Farmstrong is an organisation that was established by rural insurer FMG and the Mental Health Foundation in 2015 with the primary area of focus being the mental health of the people in our farming communities. They are really good people who are making a difference. The have a saying that goes “you matter, let’s natter”. It’s simple and effective, just like the people behind it. It will be a pleasure to hand over a cheque to them.
Prostate cancer charities are more complex and seem fragmented. But we were recommended to The Prostate Cancer Outcomes Registry. Founded by a small group of Kiwi urology and radiation oncology doctors, this group’s goal is to collect confidential and vital patient diagnostic and treatment data from all new prostate cancer cases in New Zealand, and use that data to identify men at risk, including those in rural and ethnic communities.
Like a lot of data, we collect it, but don’t use it. There’s a difference between data and information. Information happens when we make data useful.
These guys live with prostate cancer every day, and they’re desperate to make a difference. If we meet our target, $100,000 will make a big impact on their ability to deliver successful outcomes for men.
We’re calling our ride the Bike for Blokes. We start riding on Monday. The forecast is for wind and rain! We have a website up and running and some very generous New Zealanders have already offered their support.
You can follow our progress online and we’ll be putting together a regular video so as we can share the spectacular scenery that this country has to offer and the conversations that we have along the way. And it’s important to note that we’re picking up all the costs of the trip ourselves, so that every dollar raised can go to the charities we want to help.
We believe that too many men die far too young as a result of mental health issues and prostate cancer. We also believe that these issues are avoidable in many cases if the right support, timely intervention and early meaningful conversations are had. Please come on our journey as we attempt to change the conversations around these issues so that fewer dads, sons, grand-dads, uncles and brothers are lost.
We hope you can support us and come along for the ride. And with a bit of luck, we might just get some men talking about themselves.
• You can follow Bruce and Paul on Instagram @bikeforblokes and at www.bikeforblokes.co.nz.
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 19 February 2022.