Talking bollocks

Why are Welsh men being pressed to open up about their testicles?

Andrew Cox

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Topics Politics

Testicular cancer is a mercifully rare disease – affecting about 1500 men in the UK a year.

Over the past two decades, the number of men dying from the disease has declined. A survey published by The Lancet in June 2001 showed that where 276 men died from testicular cancer in the UK between 1975 and 1979, between 1995 and 1997 96 men died (1). There has been a 72 percent fall in testicular cancer fatalities over the past 20 years – and there is now a 95 percent survival rate if the illness is treated early enough.

So why is Wales being targeted with a testicular cancer awareness campaign? Statistics here do not differ greatly from the rest of the UK. About 60 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer in Wales a year, and very few of these cases result in death (2). Yet a countrywide campaign, funded by BBC Wales’ education department and the Welsh Assembly, is encouraging men to ‘check themselves’ regularly for signs of testicular abnormality.

The campaign appears to have little to do with testicular cancer itself. It seems to be more about encouraging young men to get ‘in touch’ with themselves (literally) – assuming that, because Welsh men don’t talk openly about their testicles and don’t bother checking them, they would be too proud to see a doctor were something to go wrong in their nether regions. According to Welsh health minister Jane Hutt, ‘Men are a lot less likely to use the health service than women. Regular checking is the key to beating [testicular cancer]’ (3).

Today’s young Welsh male is often seen as a hangover from traditional, old-fashioned Welsh masculinity, who needs to be educated about getting in touch with their physical, spiritual and emotional health. The common cultural stereotype of the rugged Welshman was traditionally somebody who worked in the steel or coal industries, watched rugby union and spent his spare time slating the English. Even though much of that traditional lifestyle is now history – with the decline of Wales’ heavy industries over the past 30 years, the rise of unemployment, and with little left to cohere working-class communities – Welsh men are still seen as severely out-of-touch and overly macho.

The testicular cancer campaign uses aggressive scare tactics to encourage men to become more health-aware. In one advert, Stereophonics drummer Stuart Cable warns: ‘It’s simple boys, bollock cancer can happen to anyone. Me, you, your brother, your best mate…. Basically if you’re between 18 and 35, you’re on the hit list!’ (4)

This ad is regularly aired on BBC Wales and ‘awareness posters’ are plastered across Welsh towns, encouraging young men with any doubts about down below to phone NHS Wales Direct. As a 34-year-old man, I felt concerned enough to ring up. The health information adviser told me that prior to the present campaign there had only been a handful of enquiries about testicular cancer – but now, in the space of just one week, there had been more than 200.

According to Stuart Cable: ‘I think it’s a male ego thing. Nobody wants to have some bloke at the doctors feeling your nads. But if it’s the difference between life and death, I don’t mind who’s got their hands on my bollocks.’ (5) The populist nature of the campaign is clearly aimed at Welsh youth – but it is also about persuading men of all ages to make ‘checking themselves’ into standard routine behaviour, despite the negligibly small chance of finding a malignant growth in your testes.

BBC Wales is also showing a feature-length drama called Facing Demons, starring Vincenzo Pellegrino as a Gwent police officer who can’t accept he has a tumour on one of his testicles, which leads to stress and marital problems. Off-screen, Pellegrino says: ‘It’s not going to take five minutes – clean your teeth, eat your greens, check your testicles. We’re not going to create a better world but we might save a few people’s lives.’ Apparently, during shooting breaks from filming, cast and crew regularly checked themselves. ‘They were disappearing off for quick fumbles’, says Pellegrino (6).

There is even a ‘Bllcks page’ on the BBC Wales website, complete with FAQ, self-examination guides and a ‘Me and Mine’ section telling survivors’ stories. There’s the editor who had a testicular cancer scare; the new media salesman who had an orchidectomy (removal of a testicle) and had rubber implant put in its place; the writer who admits to ‘never checking’ but is now considering ‘renegotiating’ his relationship with his balls…. (7)

This current ‘health awareness’ campaign seems to have less to do with cancer than getting men ‘in touch’ with themselves. The campaign implies that the true new Welshman takes responsibility for himself by taking ‘pocket billiards’ one step further, with Stuart Cable egging us on: ‘Go on, check yourself! While you’ve still got the balls!’ (8) All this despite the fact that testicular cancer is extremely rare, and is one of the most successfully curable cancers you can get.

Check your balls? Does anyone object if I say don’t bother?

Read on:

Bloke on a rope, 10 January 2001, by Brendan O’Neill

Top men and bad lads, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Testicular cancer deaths plunge, BBC News, 7 June 2001

(2) Battling from bllck cancer, BBC News, 15 March 2002

(3) Battling from bllck cancer, BBC News, 15 March 2002

(4) ‘Bllcks’ promotional film, BBC Wales

(5) Rock star’s testicular cancer campaign, BBC News, 15 March 2002

(6) Battling from bllck cancer BBC News, 15 March 2002

(7) ‘Bllcks’ website, BBC Wales

(8) ‘Bllcks’ promotional film, BBC Wales

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