14 September 2023

By Matt Black

After previously having no signs of illness Matt Black was diagnosed with and successfully operated on for bowel cancer in the height of the pandemic in 2020, resulting in the removal of a 9cm x 6cm cancerous tumour and 2/3rds of his colon. He has joined our panel of regular bloggers and is an ambassador for the charity.

We all like to think of ourselves as individuals, and I for one have never considered myself stereotypical until I was asked recently why men are so resistant to going to the doctor.

There seems to be a consensus that rather than make an appointment to see a medical expert when something does not feel right – men really do tend to ignore their health symptoms and expect them to go away!

In fact, I discovered there is a substantial amount of research on the topic including research by the Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical centre in the USA, who in 2019 surveyed men and reported the following findings:

  • 72% of respondents said they would rather do household chores than go the doctor
  • 65% of respondents said they would avoid going to the doctor’s if possible
  • 37% said they had withheld important information from their doctor in the past as they were not ready to deal with a potential diagnosis that might result if they are told the truth

When I look back at my own experience of bowel cancer all of these points were relevant. What’s more, after a company medical found I had a low white blood cell count, another warning sign, I ignored the advice to get further tests because I am a middle aged male.

Some months after medical this I could feel something was not right with my body and as I have written before, it was at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It came when everyone I knew was trying their best to keep their spirits up during lockdown, holding nightly zoom calls and taking part in regular online quizzes, or going for outdoor walks. And of course, clapping for the NHS every Thursday night at 8.00pm.

However, I was feeling strangely tired and lethargic and began suffering from an upset bowel. There were other symptoms: I was losing weight dramatically and having night sweats but I put them all to one side and latched on to the thought/hope that it might be Covid-19. I also didn’t want to put the NHS under more strain as it was going through one of its biggest crises since its inception and I didn’t want to divert precious resources when it could least spare them.

But I had other concerns. What if there was something seriously wrong with me? What would I do? How would I tell my family? Moreover, I was also needed at work and couldn’t afford to be absent.

As the weeks went past it was clear to the rest of my family that I was not in good shape and through their persistence they managed to overcome my resistance and I made contact with my local GP.

As you’ll remember, at the height of the pandemic face to face GP appointments were not possible. I was given a telephone consultation instead, and being a typical middle aged male, I played down the obvious symptoms to the extent the GP was of the view it was probably Covid-related and prescribed aspirin. I put the phone down with great relief and smugly told the family they had overreacted and there was nothing to worry about. How wrong I could have been?

Over the next few weeks my symptoms got stronger and I was in more pain. My wife Stef told me in no uncertain terms that I was being taken to accident and emergency to see someone in the flesh.

I was immediately driven by my daughter Holly to The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead where, after tests, bowel cancer was diagnosed. An emergency 9 hour lifesaving operation soon followed. And the rest is history. If you’d like to read in more depth about my diagnosis and hospitalisation, please take a look at my previous BRUK blogs.

Some months later I was invited to speak about my experience on Sky News when they were talking about patients with cancer being resistant to coming forward during the pandemic. I was lucky enough to be appearing alongside the late great Dame Deborah James. During our Sky News interview she said something that completely resonated with me which was that it only thanks to my family’s insistence that I received lifesaving medical attention just in time. She told me doctors’ ‘ears prick up immediately’ when they hear a patient (especially men) have come to see them because their partner has become concerned – they know it’s often serious.

As I sit and reflect some three years later I realise that I was possibly my own worst enemy. I acknowledge that I do fit the typical stereotype of a man who did not want to go to the doctor and it was, in all probability, because subconsciously I didn’t want to face up to the facts of my illness.

If it wasn’t for the care of family and the brilliance of the medical team at the Royal Free Hospital led by the highly skilled Mr Colin Hart I would not be here writing this blog.

I say please don’t follow the crowd if anything feels wrong. Go and see the doctor before it’s too late. For the sake of you and your loved ones don’t be like me!