June is Men’s Health Month, the month we continue to ignore our health, pretend our symptoms don’t exist, and generally allow any problems we have to get worse. This is why women live longer: they pay attention to new symptoms and see medical providers more often than we do.
Probably three-quarters of my male patients have medical problems that are related to lifestyle choices. If they stopped smoking, ate better, exercised more, drank water from time to time and got adequate sleep, I’d be out of a job. By the time they are forced to come in by their wife, mother, or other significant female in their life, their symptoms have begun to affect their lives, either through physical discomfort, mobility, or stress.
The other reason women live longer is because they listen to their bodies. I don’t know if we, as men, don’t have as much intuition, or if we just ignore it hoping the symptoms stop talking to us. I work as a volunteer firefighter and I remember arriving on a scene once where a male patient was having a heart attack. I asked his wife what happened, and she said her husband had complained of indigestion and went to lie down on the couch. That “indigestion” was his body screaming at him that his heart was failing. I have to wonder if there wasn’t a little voice inside his head suggesting his life might be in danger.
Why don’t men seek treatment sooner? In large part, it’s because when we feel relatively good, we minimize the impacts of getting worse on ourselves and our loved ones. Specifically, we don’t like dealing with the emotional and practical issues that can come with illness.
We also don’t like feeling vulnerable, and going to the doctor to talk about what we may view as trivial, a personal failing or an awkward symptom can be difficult. This is especially true as men age and problems related to their urinary tract or sexual health begin to arise.
We’re afraid. Our rational mind may understand that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, but emotionally we don’t want to face what’s happening so we bury frightening possibilities deep within us. We stay busy. We tell those who beg us to see a doctor that they’re overreacting, and we come up with excuses why we can’t make an appointment.
We worry about the expense of seeking treatment. Taking time off work, paying insurance co-pays, and bearing the cost of other health-related out-of-pocket expenses can add up.
We don’t care to deal with the inconvenience and frustration of trying to navigate the healthcare system, finding a doctor you trust, getting insurance approvals, and everything else that goes with treatment for a serious health condition. So, rather than getting checked out, we go about our daily lives.
Do these responses make sense? Not really, but I think I mentioned that our rational mind isn’t the one calling the shots. My wife has accurately accused me of being a knucklehead when I don’t follow up on my own health issues. It happens to all of us. It’s not until the bad news catches up, as it inevitably does, that we wish we would have done something when there was still time to change the outcome.
By visiting your primary care provider, one of two things will happen. You’ll likely find out you’re not dying of whatever your Google search came up with, or you’ll find out you do have an illness that could be treated if caught in the early stages. Also, they’ll likely talk with you about all sorts of things you can do to feel better. I don’t tell my patients what to do. I provide information and together, we figure out what works best for them.
If you have symptoms that are making you (or people who love you) nervous, make an appointment with your medical provider. You’ll be glad you did.
Justin Ebert, PA, is the medical director of MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.