OCEAN PINES — The only thing less consistent with traditional notions of manliness than a prostate exam is joining a men’s group to discuss feelings over a cancer diagnosis, especially for men of a certain generation.
Men are made, tradition goes, to work and to die and to not worry or complain about either. That these traits can be prized above another few decades on the planet is generally thought reasonable in cases where self-sacrifice improves the lives of others. There is no telling how it leached its way into self-sacrifice for its own sake. And if John Hannigan has anything to say about it, that kind of foolishness won’t survive him.
Hannigan is the founder of “Man to Man,” the local support group for men with prostate cancer. He created the organization 13 years ago, after he was diagnosed. He did it, as men do things, out of a sense of practicality rather than out of a sense of needing to share.
“My internist gave me a PSA (Prostate-specific antigen test) during my annuals and the numbers kept going up,” Hannigan said.
Eventually the test indicated that Hannigan was a strong candidate for prostate cancer, so he took the next step and went for the exam. Good thing, too, since it revealed that he had prostate cancer.
The facts go like this: an astounding number of men get prostate cancer and, as awareness and treatment options grow faster than the disease ever could, there is a shared story for every case. No matter the combination of factors, if it has happened to you, it has happened to someone else, and that person is as willing to give you whatever heads-up he can.
It’s not very different from running into someone who is from a place you are going. They will tell you, in no uncertain terms, which neighborhoods are sketchy, where the best restaurants and bars are, and other pieces of information they know you will need for your trip. In terms of recognizance, nothing is more valuable than practical information from someone who has been there.
The tragedy of prostate cancer is that, more than almost any other cancer, very early detection is almost the same thing as never having had it.
Hannigan compared prostate cancer to the much better promoted breast cancer. After years of campaigning, public events, and destroying unneeded taboos — imagine the scandal a “Save the Ta-Tas” bumper sticker would have caused even a decade ago — breast cancer has become a well-funded public cause.
Women eventually got over made-up stigmas and real medical discomfort and decided that living was more important than remaining stoic and dying unnecessarily. The model is already there, Hannigan figured, and the point is to follow it.
That is what he’s done since his own diagnosis, boosting awareness as best as one man with limited extra time and resources can. Hannigan said he doesn’t remember anything about the first meeting except his near-total unpreparedness for it.
In the intervening years, Hannigan has become an expert on awareness and on putting support groups together. It is one thing to be a wealth of information, but it is something more to be a wealth of information with access to a wealth of contacts.
One of the biggest improvements over the last few years has been the PSA test. After a simple blood extraction that doesn’t require a fast before having, a patient isn’t so much diagnosed as their risk is.
A positive on the test doesn’t mean a patient has prostate cancer, only that the risk is heightened enough to warrant additional exploration into the possibility.
Once the diagnosis is made though, that’s when the real decisions begin. One of the most important aspects of becoming part of a support group is fellow members can help someone newly diagnosed take better charge of their treatment.
Another difficulty many men face is a reticence to question a doctor’s orders or treatment plan. In many cases, all they need is to get past concerns about propriety and understand that, especially with the range of possibilities before them, taking control of their care is the best way to take control of their lives.
Hannigan said many of the men have stories about how, having sought a second opinion on a particular treatment plan, they were able to overcome their discomfort about having one line of treatment by choosing another.
“All of the men have survived,” he said. “And all have had different treatments.”
In addition to the information camaraderie at the Man To Man support group, there is almost always a guest speaker. Sometimes the guest talks about prostate cancer, sometimes a different health issue.
Information is a power like any other, in that it must be found and cultivated through the strength and courage that it takes to wield it. And, seriously, there is nothing more manly than that.