Famous for its infatuation with the body beautiful, Brazil is a country where health, fitness and vitality vie for the same limelight. It is therefore astonishing to find that one in six Brazilian men suffer from prostate cancer. What’s even more alarming is that the rate of men dying from this perfectly preventable disease is almost double that of developed countries. In over 95% of cases, if diagnosed at an early stage, it is possible to fully recover from prostate cancer. Why then these disconcerting statistics?
Delayed diagnosis is the main culprit, fuelled by a fiercely masculine culture and a lack of information. It makes for a deadly combo. The stigma around rectal exams notwithstanding, many men are too proud to go for routine check-ups, let alone to admit that they’re feeling ill. The belief is that “real men” don’t go for tests, and many find it embarrassing just discussing it. Prostate issues directly relate to sexual performance and urinary control issues – taboo subjects when trying to preserve ideas of masculinity. Sadly the reality is that the cancer is then only discovered when it is too late to do anything about it. Business woman, Dani Junco, describes how this happened to her father and the devastating effect it had on their family.
Dani’s father was ill for a long time, actively concealing the fact. He would take no tests, especially not a rectal exam and by the time it was discovered, the cancer had metastasised to spread to his other organs. It was too late to save him. His death had huge emotional and financial implications for his family. Traumatised and destitute, they had to move in with an aunt, uprooting their entire life. Dani today still mourns the fact that he’ll never meet his grandchildren. Exacerbating her sadness is the injustice that, if caught early enough, he probably would have been able to recover.
Yet, machismo is not the only thing at fault here. There is a structural problem in the public health system which fails to encourage seemingly healthy men to be examined and tested. Little information is released about the disease and people therefore don’t know that prevention is better than cure, or that a cure is even possible. Dr. Luciana Holtz, creator of the Oncoguia Institute, a non-profit organisation which helps cancer patients, believes that the awareness around prostate cancer needs to come from government. This is not easy as they have a particular take on men’s health and prostate cancer is barely mentioned. She believes that people need to fight for it to be considered, included and prioritised. A small army of activists, like prostate cancer survivor, Carlos Mazzuca, are doing their best to create awareness.
Upon hearing that he had cancer, Carlos burst into tears believing that it was a death sentence – a belief held by many. The doctor calmed him down, saying that he had a 90% chance of survival. Carlos realised he was ill when he started having difficulty urinating. His wife pleaded with him to go to the doctor, even making appointments for him. After the fifth missed appointment he finally conceded and visited a neighbourhood health clinic. Tests were done and he was referred to a specialist urologist. Had his wife not kept at it, Carlos would not be here to tell his story of survival.
Carlos is happy and proud because he managed to face it. Now he sees it as his duty to pass on the information he had learned through dealing with this disease. He encourages and educates people, warning men to look after their health. Luciana believes the future of cancer control is not only in treatment, but also in prevention. Without it, prostate cancer will only continue being the senseless killer it currently is in Brazil.