Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 14:05 UK

Are men suffering in silence?

By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

There may be some cynicism about John Prescott's motivations for revealing his battle with bulimia, but the consensus is the gruff former deputy prime minister may have done reticent fellow countrymen a favour when it comes to their health.

Head in hands
Can men now lay claim to conditions such as post-natal depression?

So are men really suffering in silence, too embarrassed to come forward about a range of disorders deemed to be "female"?

By coming clean about his struggle with what has been described as a "girl's disease", Mr Prescott has been applauded for drawing attention to the fact that some one in ten of those with eating disorders are male.

His taboo-breaking revelation was "very important", according to men's health specialist Dr Mark Hamilton. "A lot of people still see this as a disease of women and it is heartening to see John breaking this down."

In fact bulimia - a dangerous if not usually life-threatening disorder - may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to men failing to come forward about health problems seen as the preserve of women.

Finding a lump

Breast cancer is perhaps the most serious of the various conditions that affect men but are seen as women's woes.

It's complicated by the fact that all the literature and campaigns are aimed at women - and that GPs don't necessarily see what they don't expect to see
Dr Ian Banks
Men's Health Forum

Not, of course, without reason. Breast cancer afflicts far more women than men - claiming thousands of female lives per year compared with just under 100 men.

But the number of cases of the disease among men are growing, in part because of the rising levels of obesity - leading to many men developing so-called "man boobs", where there is much greater potential for cancer to develop.

And the mortality rates are high. It may startle many that male breast cancer now kills more men than testicular cancer in the UK - even if the figures are small: 92 and 74 respectively in 2005, the last year for which figures are available.

"Men are embarrassed about coming forward when they have symptoms for a disease which is seen as a woman's problem - that's definitely part of it," says Dr Ian Banks, president of the Men's Health Forum.

"But it's complicated by the fact that all the literature and campaigns are aimed at women - and that GPs don't necessarily see what they don't expect to see."

Rheumatoid arthritis is another case in point.

Seen as a disease primarily of women it can in fact prove more problematic in men, who do not always turn up to their doctors when the complaint starts - preferring, apparently, to grin and bear a condition which so affects physical prowess.

Poor men?

But male claims on some other "female" conditions are more controversial.

John Prescott talks about his bulimia

Male post-natal depression has in recent years become an increasingly recognised phenomenon, but many critics argue that this unnecessarily pathologises the natural upheaval many men find when their homelife is dramatically altered by the arrival of a child.

The suggestion of there being a "male menopause" has sparked equal consternation and allegations that moody men are simply trying to find an excuse to be irritable.

The medical community dislikes the terminology, given that men do not suffer the monthly events that give the menopause its name, but is divided as to whether men do experience anything comparable with women in late middle-age.

Whatever the truth, it has given rise to a series of pharmaceutical products - from gels to tablets - aiming to treat declining levels of testosterone and improve both mood and libido.

And while eating disorders may be slowly accumulating a band of celebrity male sufferers - including Elton John and Uri Geller, the menopause or post-natal depression is still lacking celebrity endorsement.

The perception however that "men are big hairy things who can't have emotions and feelings" may be changing, according to Steve Blackman, a former bulimia sufferer who turned to purging after piling on the pounds when he quit professional sports.

"It's bad enough being a bloke and even worse if you're shy - but men are suffering in silence and we all need to speak out."

Prescott tells of bulimia battle
20 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
Moody men blame their hormones
27 Feb 02 |  Health

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