Movember mustaches open the door for discussions about men's health

Fred Hutch researcher leads MoDawgs team for third year in a row
Image: Dr. Jonathan Wright
Fred Hutch affiliate researcher Dr. Jonathan Wright is growing a Movember mustache to raise awareness for men's health issues, particularly prostate and testicular cancer. Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

Wondering why men are looking a bit scruffy around the upper lip this month?

They’re not growing baseball beards like the Boston Red Sox. But they are on a team that’s looking to knock one out of the park when it comes to raising awareness about men’s health.

The Movember movement is an international campaign that encourages men to grow mustaches – or “mo’s” -- every November as a way to raise awareness and funds for men’s health issues, particularly prostate and testicular cancer.

Dr. Jonathan Wright, a Fred Hutch affiliate researcher and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance urologic oncologist, is doing his part. In 2011, Wright founded MoDawgs, an energetic local chapter comprised of urologists, medical oncologists, researchers, University of Washington students, alumni and others, many of whom are involved in prostate cancer care at UW, SCCA, VA Puget Sound, and Fred Hutch.

In addition to growing mustaches (not required of female members, of course), MoDawgs members raise funds, host events, and most of all, motivate men to get into the doctor for a checkup.

“Last year, Movember raised $140 million internationally and a huge portion of that goes to prostate and testicular cancer research and men's health awareness,” said Wright, who’s growing a mustache for the third year in a row. “It seemed like an absolute no-brainer for us to get involved.”

'A perfect prop'
David McClure, a 50-year-old prostate cancer survivor who joined the movement shortly after his diagnosis in 2012, said “mo’s” are a perfect prop to get people talking about men’s health.

“People aren’t used to seeing me with one so it sparks a conversation,” he said. “And that allows me to share my experience. A handful of my friends immediately went to their doctors and got screened after I talked with them (about my prostate cancer). It works.”

A 2012 global survey of Movember participants backs that up. Last year, according to the organization, 79 percent of men discussed their health with friends, family and colleagues; 69 percent of “mo bros” and “mo sistas” had a general checkup with their doctor; 67 percent recommended that someone else see a doctor and 43 percent became more aware and educated about the their health risks.

That’s good news since many men are reluctant to see a doctor for screenings – or anything.

“A lot of it is fear,” said Wright of this traditional reticence. “But it’s also not knowing that there could be health problems. It’s the same reason young people don’t have insurance. They think they don’t need it.”

But even young men need checkups.

“Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young men between 18 and 40,” Wright said. “And if it’s diagnosed early it has a tremendous cure rate – one of the highest.”

Improving survival
Prostate cancer, which affects one in six men in the U.S., is most common after age 40, but McClure said his male friends were still shocked when he was diagnosed at 49.

“You hear about guys in their 60s and 70s getting it,” he said. “I’m fit, I eat healthy. It caused a lot of my friends to pause and take stock and it helped trigger them to go to the doctor.”

Wright, an assistant professor of urology at the UW School of Medicine, recently developed guidelines to simplify prostate cancer prevention and screening recommendations. Smart screening, he said, is the key to saving lives.

“There’s no doubt that there’s controversy about prostate cancer screening and PSA blood tests,” he said. “But it’s still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men. If you have a family history or if you’re African American, you should definitely be screening, and all men over the age of 50-55 should be talking with their doctor about whether PSA screening is right for them. Studies show that PSA screening can improve survival.”

The Hutch conducts extensive research on prostate cancer, Wright said, including current studies on new treatment for advanced prostate cancer; the effect of exercise and diet on survivors; genetic markers for the disease and active surveillance.

'Everybody benefits'
In the past, Movember funds have been channeled into that research, something he said is especially important in a “financial climate where it’s difficult to get research funding nationally because of budget cuts.”

With Movember’s successful mix of fun and philanthropy, he said, “everybody benefits.”

Interested in starting your own team or joining the MoDawgs, whose members include Chris Ballew, lead singer of the Presidents of the United States of America, and Ben Bailey of “Cash Cab”? Simply sign up via the Movember website where you can also search for local events like mustache dashes, poker tourneys and other fundraisers.

Also on the docket: the annual MoDawg party at the end of the month where participants rock those life-saving ‘staches.

“We had one last year,” said Wright, laughing. “And you just look around the room and think, ‘This is what the ‘70s looked like’.”

Are you growing a "mo" or otherwise participating in Movember? Tell us your story on Facebook.

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