It's Movember and Staten Island men are growing 'staches to bring attention to some prickly health issues
Kathryn Carse/Staten Island Advance
on November 11, 2013 at 12:00 PM, updated November 11, 2013 at 2:40 PM
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- We're all going to die sometime, but if you're a man, you want to die from something else beside prostate or testicular cancer.
That's the way Michael O'Brien looks at it.
Not because it is any worse than any other way to die, but because it is preventable. If you catch it early, and get treated, the chances are very good it won't kill you.
So he is growing a mustache.
The 30-something lawyer has joined men around the world who are celebrating Movember — a mustache movement during November to "change the face of men's health."
"It's a fun thing to do for a very serious underlying reason," said O'Brien, a Grymes Hill resident.
Why a mustache?
Basically, much of men's health problems comes from them not talking about them, not going to the doctors or seeking preventive tests for diseases such as testicular and prostate cancer. And forget about talking about mental health.
However, grow some facial hair, and everyone has something to say about it — from Mom to wife to strangers.
That is what a bunch of men in Australia found out in 2003 when they grew mustaches — known Down Under as a "mo." It sparked so many conversations that the next year they organized the effort so more men could harness all that attention for a good cause — to raise awareness and funds for men's cancers and mental health issues.
O'Brien, whose law practice O'Brien and Jacobs is located in St. George and Manhattan, joined the effort through the Staten Island Economic Development Corp. (SIEDC) where the Emerging Entrepreneurs Council (EEC) formed a team to support Island men — Mo Bros — and the women who care about them — Mo Sistas — to participate in the hairy movement to raise awareness and funds.
"With my own dad, my father-in-law, brothers-in-law, it helps me nudge them and say, 'Hey, get yourself checked out. We want you around a long time,' " said O'Brien, who joined some teammates at In the Mixx salon for a clean shave before whisker-growing.
PSA AND DRE
The way to get "checked out" is a trip to the urologist, especially between the ages of 50 and 70, for a PSA and a DRE.
The PSA test is a blood screening that detects prostate specific antigen (PSA), a protein that is produced by the prostate gland. A high level can indicate the presence of cancer, but it is used with other diagnostic tools, in particular the DRE.
That's a digital rectal exam — the digit is the doctor's finger.
"No one is running in here dying to have a rectal exam," said Dr. Michael Savino, associated director of urology at Staten Island University Hospital.
Co-workers, brothers, cousins, uncles love to kid men about the procedure, so they come in with all kinds of preconceived notions, said Dr. Savino. But after the first one, the stories are laid to rest.
"It takes 10 seconds; 15 at the most. If it takes longer, you're in the wrong place," said Dr. Savino, who doesn't seem to need a mustache to lighten up the approach to deadly issues. (He hasn't decided about growing a mustache. His sons are doing it, but his wife warns him he will look older.)
About one man in six will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime. On Staten Island, it was the second highest form of cancer after breast cancer and followed by lung and colorectal cancers.
The problem with prostate cancer is there are no symptoms in the early stages, and if men feel fine, they don't go to the doctor.
"You want to feel OK when you come; then we have a chance of early detection," said Dr. Savino. On the other hand, if you are experiencing symptoms — urinating blood, feeling sluggish or weak, loss of appetite, losing weight — there is a chance you are in an advanced stage of prostate cancer.
Although testicular cancer, compared to other cancers, is rare, it is most common in males between 15 and 35. It also has easily detected symptoms and is highly treatable.
Men of any age who feel a small hard lump, with swelling or a change in the consistency of the testicle, should see a doctor, which according to Dr. Savino, they don't usually need to be persuaded to do.
"Men show up early when they detect anything different there. In the shower, or if a wife, girlfriend, boyfriend feels a mass — and they are in the office. They might wait a week or month to see if it goes away, but they show up," said Dr. Savino.
If found and treated early, the cure rate is about 95 percent.
YOUR FATHER'S MUSTACHE
Men often get a head start on a beard or mustache when they are on vacation or home with the flu, which avoids the prickly, "what's that on your lip?" stage.
During Movember, participants suffer through those early awkward days in public.
"I look like my father in the '80s," says Steven Grillo. "All I need is a Members Only jacket."
But for Grillo, it's all worth it. At 28, the need to be pro-active came home early — his father-in-law is being treated for an advanced stage of prostate cancer. A project manager with the SIEDC, Grillo embraced the comic relief of a mustache (even if it was at his own expense) and joined its Movember team.
With his wife poking fun on Facebook at that thing on his lip, family and friends can use his "goofy" look as an opening salvo to contact his father-in-law.
"Being treated for cancer can be a depressing, solitary thing. The mustache creates a conversation opener. If it's just talking about mustaches, that's great too, but it also gives him a chance to talk about his chemo and how he is feeling," said Grillo.
In support of his father-in-law, Grillo already has collected $1,125 for the SIEDC team.
With some three million Mo Bros and their supporting Mo Sistas from 21 countries around the world, the Movember Foundation redistributes funds to projects all over the world for research, education and treatment of men's cancers and mental health challenges.
What does mental health have in common with men's cancers? Mental health issues are common, avoided by men and effective treatments are available.
Getting help for a mental health issue can be straightforward, says Dr. Stephen Wakschal, a psychologist and director of Victory Behavioral Health in Willowbrook. A therapist helps you look at the underlying reason for depression or anxiety and comes up with a game plan.
"It's more like coaching," he said.
Wakschal says most depression and anxiety comes from a sense of loss during a time of transition — good or bad.
It can be confusing, he said, when you feel sad about happy events such as getting married, having a child or starting a new job. But these events bring a shift in responsibilities and changes in routines such as having less time hanging out.
And, Wakschal asks his patients to consider, when the transition is more difficult — leaving the parental home, taking care of an aging parent, having a special needs child, retiring, getting fired, losing a spouse or a friend — wouldn't it be strange if you felt great?
He encourages men to consider the intensity, duration and frequency of a feeling and if it is interfering with something in their life.
"If you are becoming isolated, not taking pleasure in things that you did, if it is interfering with something in your life," says Wakschal, you should speak to your doctor about seeing a mental health professional.
At Staten Island Radiation Oncology, where men's health is an everyday concern, Movember is being embraced as a light-hearted way to support the patients being treated for prostate and testicular cancer.
"It takes their mind off of what they are here for; you get a smile," said chief therapist Kirk Krickmier, who joined a Movember team with his co-workers.
Typically, he said, male patients respond to questions about how they feel with a brief, "Great" or "Perfect."
But a mustache can help loosen up the conversation and get the men to talk a little more about what they are going through.
HEY, MO SISTAS
The success of the American Cancer Society's Pink Ribbon campaign is hard to ignore, especially when the burly men of the NFL don pink accessories.
"Men's health hasn't gotten that type of exposure. If this helps get the conversation started, that's great," said Grillo.
And women who play an important role in the health of the men they care for are encouraged to become a Mo Sista to support the effort by talking it up in social media, raising funds and helping to organize social events.
In 2012, over 1.1 million Mo Bros and Mo Sistas around the world raised $147 million, with U.S. over 209,000 Mo's raising $21 million.
Register and find information about the movement and resources on men's health at Movember.com.