Dodging the big 'C'

Ben Peacock is the first port of call when his mates want to know whether a lingering malaise or a newfound lump on their body should be ignored or greeted with alarm.

It's not because the marketing agency founder also moonlights in the medical industry, in between juggling creative gigs for the likes of Vodafone, Sony and Ikea – all clients of his Sydney firm, Republic of Everyone.

It's because Peacock is also a survivor who is now six years in the clear after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006, at the age of 33.

Two major operations and four rounds of chemotherapy over six months is a pedigree of suffering that has made him the go-to guy and agony aunt for other males who are worried about their health and chary about seeing a doctor in case their worst fears are confirmed.

Getting men to talk about their health and take better care of their bodies is the focus of a new Cancer Council NSW campaign to reduce the number of Aussie blokes who are felled by the Big C.

Men are 84 per cent more likely than women to die of preventable cancers that are common to both sexes, according to the Council.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show they accounted for 24,552 of the country's 43,298 cancer deaths in 2010, compared with women's 18,746; a pattern which has remained consistent for the past decade.

Launching on Wednesday with a video takeoff of the YouTube hit ShitGirlsSay, the campaign's theme is "Shit Men Don't Say".

It's endorsed by a clutch of well known Aussies whose lives have been touched by the disease. They include celebrity builder Scott Cam, Choirboys lead singer Mark Gable, Sydney Swans footballer Jude Bolton and Vashti Whitfield, the widow of Andy, the star of TV show Spartacus, who died of non-Hodgkins's lymphoma in 2011.


The campaign will encourage men to reduce their risk of developing cancer by improving their general health, and raise their odds of a successful cure by heading to the GP as soon as they notice something is amiss.

Far too many don't, says Associate Professor David Smith, an epidemiologist and researcher at the Cancer Council.

"We're programmed not to be keepers of health," Smith says. "Not going to the doctor is a lifelong pattern. Men don't go to the doctor as much when they're sick and they don't have as many check-ups."

Other high-profile executives to have faced and beaten the Big C include the managing partner of McKinsey and Company, Michael Rennie, who was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma 25 years ago, and Asciano non-executive chairman Malcolm Broomhead.

Experts say a healthy lifestyle can prevent a third of cancers but when it comes to the unhealthy stuff, men are at the forefront. They drink more alcohol, have poorer diets, spend longer in the sun, exercise less and carry more excess weight than women.

The campaign has men aged 30 to 50 in its sights. It's a demographic where cancer is relatively uncommon and the optimum window in which to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of it developing, Smith says.

Asia Pacific director of the IT security firm Sophos, Rob Forsyth, was at the upper end of this bracket back in 2000.

A trim, rugby-playing 50-year-old with a high profile role on the organising committee for the Sydney Olympics, he regarded himself as fighting fit until a fast-growing lump on his neck was diagnosed as throat cancer.

A gruelling trifecta of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation saw his weight drop from 85kg to 58kg over the subsequent two months.

Since pronounced as cured, Forsyth says the experience threw his mortality into sharp focus and altered his notion of courage.

"Guys traditionally have wanted to be seen as brave," he says.

"Yet I think there's a lot of my peer group who don't show bravery, they show cowardice in not having tests done … Australian men have a strange mindset where it's braver not to know.

"As a bunch we need to talk more about it. It's really simple, being healthy – you don't have to give up everything. And occasionally go to the doctor – be brave."

Top 5 Tips for cutting cancer risk:

1. Don't smoke.

2. Become more physically active. Take the dog for a walk, say no to the golf buggy or throw on some lycra and hit the bike path.

3. Know your own body and go to the doctor if you notice changes.

4. Minimise sun exposure by covering up and avoiding the harshest rays in the middle of the day.

5. Eat better and drink less. This means less red meat, white bread and salt, more vegetables and knocking back the second or third beer or wine.

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This article Dodging the big 'C' was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.