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How do you have that awkward conversation about cancer screening with dad?

Friday 2 September, 2011 by Melissa

I'm not sure about you, but as Father's Day approaches, my thoughts are turned to all things family and gifts-for-dad-related.

It may just be that I'm a sucker for those endless infomercials with the "latest and greatest, must haves for dad" interlaced with that saccharine sweet daddy-daughter music which tugs at the heart and purse strings simultaneously.

Or it may be that Father's Day makes me think how extraordinarily lucky I am that my dad is still around because so many people out there have lost their fathers/male family members - especially to cancer.

Working here at Cancer Council, I'm very aware of the loss of family members many people have encountered because of the big C.

All this thinking has gotten me thinking (who would have thought that hey?): how do you have that conversation about cancer risks and cancer screening with your dad, grandfather, uncle or older male role model to try and avoid such a devastating loss?

How do you convince them to go speak to their GP about cancer risks and screening?

Or buy a cancer screening test like a Faecal Occult Blood Test (used to screen for bowel cancer in men and women 50 and older)?

Or speak to their doctor if they're concerned about what's going on, as one Australian comedian put it, in the "underpants department?"

Furthermore, how do you convince your loveable, but maybe getting on the bit-too-cuddly side father, that exercise and proper diet can lower their risk of developing cancer - along with giving up smoking and lessening their intake of alcohol?

I mean, telling anyone, let alone your beloved, dear old dad he is getting tubby and should get on the treadmill can be, perhaps, a tad offensive.

And trying to get him to change the habits of a lifetime like smoking may seem nothing short of impossible.

Here at Cancer Council, we know from both research and experience that men are far less likely to discuss or screen for cancers like bowel cancer, skin cancer and other cancers which affect the male of the species.

As I've often lamented with colleagues, talking about all things related to the bum and pooh, or to the genitales, can be a very awkward conversation no matter whom you are talking to.

But starting the conversation about cancer risks and cancer screening is so important - we know more men are diagnosed with and die from cancers like bowel cancer and two-thirds of people who die from skin cancers are men.

In both cases, men who are diagnosed with these cancers in the early stages are far more likely to survive - 90 per cent of bowel cancers are curable if detected early and 95 per cent of all skin cancers can be successfully treated if found at an early stage.

Add to this, the overall cancer statistics from latest 2009 Canstat data.

It shows that far more men than women were diagnosed with cancer in Victoria in 2009 - 16,237 men and 12,077 women presented with new cancers and 5,850 men and 4,547 women died from cancer that same year.

So here are some suggestions for all those people out there wanting to start the conversation with their fathers, papas, vaters, pateras', padres, abbuns or foo chuns but find it difficult to raise the subject (please note these are suggestions meant to start a conversation and have no "professional" basis):

If your dad is a fan of the British Royals, you can perhaps start the conversation with all the latest news around Pippa Middleton's behind before segueing into "talking about bums, have you considered a bowel cancer screening test?"

Leave some Quit material lying around on the kitchen or coffee table or buy your dad some nicotine gum/patches for Father's day (it's not a great gift but has to be better than the ones above!)

Start the conversation with, "so, it's September, those UV rays will be back with a vengeance, you should think about sunscreen and a hat to keep your youthful appearance."

Offer to start a gym membership with your dad and tell him you'd like to get fit and need his help so you can look like this.

If the gym's not your dad's style, offer to meet up with him for a walk, run or bike ride - a healthier lifestyle could be better for both of you - and could mean you'll be celebrating many more Father's Days together.

How would you start the conversation with your dad? We'd love to hear your suggestions - leave them below.



Hi Elizabeth - thanks for your great suggestions on exercise and thanks for sharing your personal point of view about cancer screening. Bowel cancer is our second biggest cancer killer yet 90% of cases can be cured if found early. The reason we promote screening for bowel cancer is because there are often no symptoms until the cancer has advanced, when chance of survival is greatly reduced. We agree people need to make an informed choice about what’s best for them re: screening, we also need to make sure they are aware of the options for early detection and finding cancer at a stage that requires minimum treatment for the best outcome.

From: Melissa - Cut Your Cancer Risk, 15/04/2013

I am well organised this year and sent my dad his Fathers Day present already - a Heart Foundation 'BBQ and Grill' Cookbook. Not sure how it would be received - but he says he loves it! ...so seems like it won't become fuel for the BBQ after all..

From: Nat, 15/04/2013

I personally believe blanket recommendations for cancer screening are inappropriate. Anything that carries risk to a symptom-free person should be their decision alone, and an informed decision at that... Few benefit from screening, while many get caught up in over-detection & massive over-treatment (pap tests) (the word "massive" was used by Dr Alex Barrett on the ABC Health Report with Norman Swan) or over-diagnosis (breast screening). Prostate screening also leads to high over-diagnosis and over-treatment. We often don't hear about the risks of testing and IMO, the so-called benefits of screening are often inflated. I always urge people to do some independent research - don't rely on the screening brochures that IMO, don't provide balanced and complete information. It's important to make sure you have ALL of the facts when you put your healthy body on the line. I totally agree about buying your Mum or Dad a cookery book with a heart health focus. Our No 1 killer - I think it's largely forgotten and the focus goes onto the cancers we screen for...because we hear about them all the time. Sometimes with the promotion of screening, we overlook more serious and likely risks to our health. I think we need to examine our risk profiles, I know that my ancestors all died from heart disease - heart attacks or strokes - that will be my focus. A pedometer is also a great gift. We gave Mum a gym membership when our father passed away - it's been wonderful - she's never been so fit and it's also a great social experience - she's made new friends of all ages and calls them her "second family". You can also relax at the gym using the pool and some have steam rooms or a jacuzzi. It's also great for mental health - exercise can lift the spirits, relieve stress & help with self-esteem and confidence. It helped Mum build a new life after the early loss of her life partner. She's now also doing yoga...she's 79 and has been a "gym junkie" for 17 years. There's no doubt the gym membership has extended our mother's life and also given her a great quality of life.

From: Elizabeth, 15/04/2013

Not my dad, but for my slightly-too-tubby mum, me and my siblings bought her a pedometer one year for her birthday, together with a set of kilometre targets to make 'Mum's walk around the world'. At each target (planned for about once a month for a year) one of us would take her out for a reward - a Thai massage when she had walked as far as Thailand, a home-cooked Spanish meal when she made it to Spain. She was grumpy when she first got the present and thought we were forcing her to exercise, but actually then really liked the guarantee of seeing us at least once a month.

From: Jen, 15/04/2013

Melissa I love this post. It's so true that it's hard to start these conversations with men. My Dad is overweight and I've been known to get him gifts like healthy eating cook books for Father's Day.

From: Laura - CYCR team, 15/04/2013

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