Why cancer co-ordinator Sandra needs you to step into her Man Van...

SANDRA Gordon certainly does not fit any notional image you might have of a ‘man grabber’ and yet here she is, happy to ‘fess up’ and say that is exactly what she needs to be - but for very healthy reasons.

“I am looking for men and will be grabbing them off the streets!” she laughs. “We need them to come into our ‘Man Van’ to get checked out.”

The Banbridge woman is the enthusiastic co-ordinator for the new Ulster Cancer Foundation ‘Man Alive’ Project, part of which involves a touring white ‘Man Van’ which was launched last week into the rural highways and byeways with the aim of targeting ‘hard-to-reach’ males.

And Sandra, who drives the van and helps carry out some of the health assessment checks along with Mairead McCann, health promotion nurse, is aware the two could be in for a bit of a bumpy ride.

“Men don’t always want to know about their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and expanding waistline measurements, so we have tried to make the Man Van as man-friendly as possible,” she says. “A sense of humour also helps and puts everyone at their ease.

“When you go out-and-about into farmers’ marts and rural towns and villages, you need to be able to exchange a little light banter with the more traditional type of men and offer solid, down-to-earth health advice.

“Big burly farmers, for instance, are not going to want to scrutinize the labels on food products for their salt content or whatever, so we set out practical pointers to just having ‘less on your plate’ instead. To put it in health ‘motoring’ terms, if you’re not driving the same number of miles, you’re not going to need the same amount of petrol.

“Men are great fun to work with and humour is fundamental to the success of the serious message we are trying to get across. We are engaging with individuals who might freeze up in a clinical environment, such as a doctor’s surgery, Anyway, when you are out in the middle of a farmers’ mart with sheep running around your feet, you need to be able to have a laugh!”

But behind the light-hearted approach is a deadly serious caveat in that research carried out by the Ulster Cancer Foundation, in partnership with the University of Ulster, highlighted men as a ‘high risk’ group when it comes to cancer - and cancer prevention.

Key findings showed that men wanted bite-sized information provided in convenient, local venues and in this regard the Man Van has been ideally devised to attract even the most reluctant men through its shiny back doors.

Bought with the help of a £317,000 grant from the Big Lottery’s Reaching Communities programme which is funding the three-year ‘Man Alive’ project, the Man Van is designed with comfort in mind, as well as pragmatism.

“The vehicle has limousine-tined windows and sound-proof doors for privacy,” says Sandra. “I found this out during our first sortie when I couldn’t hear a thing and didn’t know when Mairead was ready to see the next patient. We are now thinking of installing a bell so appointment times run more smoothly.”

The Man Van will be out on the road three days a week, bringing health testing and health messages to men on their own doorstep. There will also be advice on alcholol consumption, how to stop smoking, care in the sun and blood glucose testing, in addition to on-the-spot cancer prevention information and self-development programmes.

And, just in case potential visitors are still a little wary, Sandra hastens to add that at no point will they be required to take off their clothes!

“We have had a brilliant response by men so far, but we need more men to come forward and take responsibility for their own health,” she adds “There are no intrusive tests carried out, but we can give on-the-spot results for basic tests which can indicate if further assessment needs to be carried out.

“We have seen more than 200 men already and have asked quite a few of these to take themselves off to the doctor. Sometimes innocuous tests like increased waistline measurements are warning signs to something else. It’s not just about the aesthetics - an increase in weight can relate back to a number of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

“When we were in Hilltown and Markethill areas with the Man Alive project - not the Man Van - we came across chaps would look after their cattle better than themselves, so getting across the importance of nutrition and lifestyle choices couldn’t be more timely.”

Another grouping being targeted by the project is the travelling community and the Man Van will also be parking up at traveller camps throughout the Southern region.

“Life expectancy among men in the travelling community is alarmingly low compared to other male groups, so the Man Van will be travelling to traveller camps as well,” said Sandra. “This project is all about reaching men who traditionally don’t ever think of attending their local health centre. For some men, there is still a bit of a cavalier attitude and not going to the doctor is almost seen as a trophy of toughness.”

Chief Executive of the Ulster Cancer Foundation, Roisin Foster, believes that men are often diagnosed with cancer at a later stage - with poorer outcomes - precisely because of this ingrained way of thinking.

“Traditionally, men are reluctant to talk about health issues or seek professional help, and, as a result, if they are diagnosed with cancer, it may to be at a more advanced stage leading to fewer treatment options, a poorer outcome and a higher death rate,” she says. “Research shows significant inequalities between male and female life expectancy in Southern Trust area. Alarmingly, in the Newry and Mourne area, cancer incidence is six per cent higher and the death rate eight per cent higher than the Northern Ireland average.

“Recognised as an area of high deprivation, Newry and Mourne and South Armagh have a large rural population and a tradition of low access and use of health and wellbeing services by men. The Man Alive project aims to target these hard-to-reach groups to help men reduce their risk of the disease.”

But, the good news, say Sandra and Roisin, is that two-thirds of cancers could be prevented by adopting a healthier lifestyle and it’s never too late for men to start incorporating simple, but effective, cancer prevention measures into their daily routines.

* For further information or to book the Man Alive project for your club or group, email Sandra at sandragordon@ulstercancer.org