If you want to support a women’s health cause, it’s easy. You can wear pink in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, participate in Race for the Cure, or join a fun run for ovarian cancer. But for men, there’s pretty much only one option: not shaving for the month of November, otherwise known as Movember.
Here’s the problem. Men don’t talk about their health. Ninety two percent say they always wait a few days after experiencing unusual symptoms before going to the doctor, and the majority of men only visit a physician if prodded by their spouse. That may explain why men live on average five years less than women, and are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer or commit suicide. “Men don’t come and see me unless they are really sick,” says Dr. Reid Blackwelder, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Men feel they’re not supposed to have weaknesses. Men need to see [their doctors], but we haven’t encouraged it as we have for women.”
Movember is supposed to change that. Since facial hair is an obvious conversation starter, encouraging men to stop shaving is a clever way to get men to explain their ‘staches by forcing men’s health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer, into the discussion. During the month, men get sponsors to support them in their hair growth by donating money in their name to Movember. The tongue in cheek marketing that appeals to “bros” also helps. “We use fun as a Trojan horse to get men engaged in their health,” says Adam Garone, Executive Director and CEO of Movember. “Promoting this in a fun way is fundamental to our success. The guys become walking and talking billboards for men’s health, and valuable conversations happen.”
Still, that awareness tends to last only as long as the hair. Once Movember is over, funding for men’s health issues drops. And even during November, the campaign falls short of some of the well known fund raisers for women’s health issues, such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for The Cure. In the U.S., for example, last year’s Movember campaign involved 209,000 U.S. participants and raised $21 million, while the Race for the Cure attracted 1.4 million domestic participants and raised $182 million. Susan G Komen’s total revenue for 2012 was $342,373,526 and $318 million went to mission-related programming and research.
Globally, Movember raised $147 million for men’s health programs last year, with over 1.1 million participants. Officials won’t have the final tally for last month’s campaign until April, when all of the pledges are collected. (You can keep track on the program’s constantly updated website.)
How much impact does the annual salute to hirsuteness have on men’s health? When the campaign began in Australia 2003 (the U.S. didn’t join until 2007), it focused on raising awareness about prostate cancer and the need to get screened for disease, as well as the latest treatments. In recent years, however, it started to broaden its scope to include mental health, and the importance of healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise and good nutrition. If nothing else, the program’s advocates hope that the campaigns reduce some of the stigma that prevents men from talking about health issues, and in making them more comfortable to discuss and ask their doctors about any health symptoms they may have. “We generally see a big rise in men coming in during September when it’s National Prostate Health Month, and in November,” says Dr. David B. Samadi, the chairman of urology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Men need to get pushed and campaigns like Movember bring this to the surface. We are starting to see more younger men in their 40s and 50s coming in to get screened which is really important since they have decades left to live. The publicity is bringing a lot of awareness to the issue.
Garone says Movember stays in close contact with participants outside of the campaign over email and social media channels in order to keep participants up to date on the progress made by the men’s health programs they fund.
“We are trying to change the attitude and the level of understanding men have around their health, and a lot of that is making it okay for men to discuss this,” says Garone. “I am certainly seeing a generational change. There used to be this bravado, and feeling that it [everything] would be ok, and it will be ok tomorrow. A lot of guys have a really lax attitude toward their health. There’s this feeling that we are bullet proof, and don’t need to worry about it. That’s why we really want to educate guys by telling them that the lifestyle they live now will influence their 40s, 50s and 60s.” Even if it means growing a mustache to do it.