Giving men's health the finger

An enlarged prostate gland is the most common prostate disease in Australia. While debate rages about early detection of prostate cancer - which affects 1 in 6 men over the age of 70 - writer Mark Dapin explains how men can take the finger with good grace.

By Mark Dapin

I had never given any thought to my prostate until my GP handed me a slip of paper which entitled me to free prostate-cancer screening. I didn’t even know what a prostate was, except that it was a gland – and I couldn’t have told you what a gland was, either.

Like most men, I have no interest in what goes on inside my body. The only people I have ever met who know about men’s bodies are women – including my GP.

Her invitation to a prostate screening didn’t sound particularly, well, inviting, so I decided to ignore it – the way that most men disregard most things to do with their health.

Blood: men get it  

Then one morning I woke up to frightening dark bloodstains on my bedsheets and a once-brown mole that had turned black on my chest. I worried that I might have a melanoma, and quickly arranged to have the mole removed and sent for a biopsy.

It was the blood that drove my decision. Men will often be galvanised into action by the sight of the blood, because we associate blood with injuries – which, unlike illnesses, we accept, understand and, often, brag about.

Also, skin cancer is different from other cancers in that it manifests outside the body and is therefore thinkable about. Unlike prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is unthinkable

I now know that the prostate is below my bladder (yuck) and it makes the fluid that feeds and carries my sperm (necessary, I suppose). People seem to delight in telling you that it is shaped like a walnut, although I don’t understand why this is so interesting. It weighs about 30 grams, which is another useless thing to know.

Apparently, the prostate enlarges as men grow older, which is part of the reason older men pee more often (I hate this train of thought).

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer to affect men in Australia (the most common is… skin cancer). It is a leading cause of death by cancer (after lung cancer and colorectal cancer). It is found most often in men over 65 years old, although the average age at diagnosis is 70.

According to the Cancer Council, one in 6 males will have prostate cancer by the time they are 85. If you catch it early enough, you might be able to have your prostate removed and it won’t kill you.

So, you know, it’s probably worth having the test. Even if that does mean having to think about your prostate and other icky things like your bladder.

Digital reluctance

Part of my reluctance to be tested for prostate cancer stemmed from a distaste for the idea of being digitally penetrated.

In fact, I had imagined that the prostate-probing finger was an urban myth – like the rumoured “cough-and-drop” at school, when the doctor was brought in to give all the boys their tuberculosis jab – and that modern medicine had done away with the need for such invasive procedures.

I’d heard there was now a blood test for prostate cancer, which I was quite willing to undergo, but it turned out that you need the blood test and the finger. No matter how hard I tried – and, I admit, I didn’t try all that hard – I couldn’t convince myself of the urgency for the examination.

But when I had the mole removed, I promised my doctor that I would come back for the results of the biopsy and “do the other thing” too. Sensing my reluctance, she asked if I might prefer a male doctor to perform the procedure.

It was a tough call but, in the end, the decision had to be based on which gender generally had the shortest fingers, and women won this, uh, hands down.

Getting the finger

When it came to the (hopefully not very) big day, I was surprised to find the doctor’s surgery decorated with blue balloons, and the receptionist wearing a blue spangled hat, as if a disco ball had dropped from the ceiling and landed on her head.

In my experience, people wearing silly hats are usually just out to attract attention, so I made no comment and took my seat in the waiting room.

The doctor called me in, told me my mole was not malignant, and asked me to take off my shirt so that she could remove my stitches. This wasn’t overly painful, so I felt things were going well and it was probably best not to spoil them by overdoing it. I decided I would have the prostate test next time.

But the doctor told me this was Blue September. Although it sounded like the name of a risque terrorist gang, it was actually prostate-cancer awareness month. This was the reason for the balloons and hats, to celebrate the time of year when all eligible patients are strongly encouraged to get the finger.

I gave in.

She told me I could put my shirt back on – but that seemed like a bit of a tokenistic concession to my dignity, since I had to take my pants off.

I lay on the couch and faced the wall – which was a far better scenario than I’d imagined – and she, basically, did what was advertised.

If you’re a man, I know you’re wondering what it felt like. Well, I guess it felt like I’d sat on a balloon, which had then somehow inflated inside me: a hot air balloon, to be precise.

What does a prostate examination feel like? Like sitting on a balloon.

So it wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it only lasted a few seconds, and was considerably better than dying of cancer.

The doctor told me I did not have an enlarged prostate, so I’d been cleared of two cancers in one day.


A little later, my uncle died of prostate cancer.

A man has more chance of developing the condition if a father or brother is diagnosed by the age of 60. My dad did not live to see 60, and my brother isn’t 60 yet.

So I guess I’ll be, er, taking the finger again before too long.

Just don’t ask me to do it with a bloke.

To find out more about prostate risks and screening options call 1800 22 00 99 or visit the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia website.

What the Cancer Council says about prostate cancer

In its early stages, prostate cancer may not show any symptoms. Symptoms of early prostate cancer can include:

  • difficulty passing urine
  • a slow, interrupted flow of urine
  • frequent passing of urine, including at night
  • incontinence.

Symptoms associated with advanced prostate cancer include:

  • blood in urine
  • pain during urination
  • lower back or pelvic pain.

These symptoms are also found in men who may have benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a common, non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. Only arund 36% of prostate cancers in Australia are detected at stage 1.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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