“Sort of everybody knew about it. I thought, well, there’s no use hiding it, it’s out there, and I was quite surprised that there was this thing called penile cancer and at the time I think I just wanted to jump on this crusade of, you know, enlightening people that this thing exists – watch it!”
These are the words of Les, who was diagnosed with penile cancer at 41. They’re taken from a qualitative research project conducted by Dr Peter Branney and colleagues at the Centre for Men’s Health, Leeds Metropolitan University. The research draws upon interviews with 29 survivors of penile cancer, and forms the basis of a new awareness campaign by the award-winning charitable project Health Talk Online.
Although less common than many forms of the disease, penile cancer affects about 400 new cases every year in the UK. It is especially amenable to awareness-raising because it displays symptoms sooner than many cancers and, if diagnosed early, can often be removed with a quick and easy operation. If left later, the surgery may need to be more radical, or eventually the disease may become untreatable. One finding of the research is that many diagnoses are delayed because affected men or, worse, their doctors often wrongly attribute symptoms to a sexually transmitted disease.
It doesn’t require much imagination to understand the profound psychological impacts of penile cancer, or treatments such as partial or total penectomy, upon someone’s identity as a man. Many of the study’s subjects describe a sense of emasculation, sexual frustration and sense of inadequacy as a husband or partner.
While not directly equivalent, these emotions may be familiar to many of the tens of thousands of women living with or after breast cancer. There is something that seems exceptionally cruel about a disease that attacks our sexual identity and most intimate body parts, but as several of the penile cancer subjects confirm, patients often justifiably resent having their health, wellbeing and gender identity reduced to a single body part. That puts charities and awareness campaigns in an extremely delicate position.
October is breast cancer awareness month and, especially in the US, corporate brands have been bedecked with pink ribbons. One particular fundraising effort can perhaps be seen as an object lesson in how not to raise funds and awareness. The hardcore video tube Pornhub has promised to donate to breast cancer research for every click on videos in their big boobs and small boobs section. If you’re already recoiling from the crass association between sex and cancer, the offence is compounded many times over by their advertising tagline: Save the Boobies. Yes, you read that right – not saving lives or saving women, just their breasts. At least one cancer charity has already rejected their cash, but the site is unrepentant.
But is it ever possible to link sexuality and cancer awareness in an appropriate way? Yes, I think it is. A few years ago the men’s cancer charity Everyman produced a hit viral featuring Rachel Stevens seductively inviting viewers to “check their plums” for testicular lumps. Tacky? Probably, but also highly effective. More recently, a community of (mostly female) erotic bloggers from RSVP Erotica and Sinful Sunday have been tagging their amateur offerings with links to breast cancer awareness campaigns. Such efforts may not appeal to everyone but, in my view at least, they tread the tightrope quite well, helping to spread information without slipping into gross exploitation.
As we slip beyond October, we will welcome Movember, the annual national moustache-growing contest. This initiative to highlight male-specific cancers was a long time coming, and has thrived on the link between a simple totem of masculinity and men’s health, without dwelling on the obvious implications for sexual potency of testicular, prostate or penile cancer. It is nonetheless inevitable that there will sometimes be connections drawn between what we might call more intimate cancers and sexuality. As any marketer will tell you, sex sells, and nothing catches public attention like a sexual hook. Any charities or campaigns that can find a path through the minefield of ethics, morality and good taste would be likely to mine a rich seam.
As a starter, how much better would it be if an operation like Pornhub were to exercise its charitable impulses by donating to Movember for every click on a collection of vintage porn clips featuring classic 1970s moustaches? Unlike the Save the Boobies campaign, it would at least be funny. Cancer is never sexy, and nor should it be, but as many of the interviews on Health Talk Online confirm, a sense of humour is all but essential.
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