Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Excuse me sir, do you have a minute to talk about prostates?"

During our five days of research collection in San Vito, my group members and became the talk of the small downtown park in the town by the research station. For our study on prostate cancer screening practices in the local community, we only spoke to Costa Rican men over 40.We made friends with the taxi drivers, the vendors, the men relaxing in the park or waiting for a bus and even the farmers in the city for their weekly errands. As three young women, we weren’t sure how we would be received, especially since we wanted to ask men about their prostates and about their thoughts on rather uncomfortable medical exams. We didn’t know what to expect from our survey participants. Would they even be willing to talk to us? We set off for San Vito early Monday morning, proud of the survey that we had designed, but a nervous to see how the week would go. The first interview was the hardest but I got more and more comfortable at stopping men on the street as the days went by, people were incredibly receptive and welcoming to us. Back in our U.S. hometowns, people with surveys or petitions aren’t usually given the time of day by the busy crowds running errands or rushing to work. Men in San Vito were happy to pause, get to know us a bit, and take some time to do something for their community.

Our survey participants were actually very open and honest with us. They didn’t just answer our questions, they shared their stories and concerns with us. We heard many men attribute the lack of screening in their community to machismo”or “mala cultura” surrounding the rectal exam in particular. One participant told us that “men here are so uncomfortable and ashamed of the rectal exam that men would rather die from prostate cancer than get a rectal exam.”Although we only met a few men who had themselves been diagnosed with prostate cancer, most of the men that we spoke to knew a friend, neighbor or family member who had struggled with prostate cancer. Men who knew of people with prostate cancer often mentioned seeing how painful and terrible the disease was, and mentioned the importance of early detection for the best outcome.

It was interesting to gauge what men knew and what they didn’t; For example, almost every man we spoke to knew that screening is recommended after age 40. This key piece of health information seems to have “stuck” in the community, and yet many potentially lifesaving facts about prostate cancer and the screening process aren’t common knowledge yet. My favorite part of our research week was, without a doubt, seeing small groups of men who we had interviewed in the park going over the health information sheets that we distributed and discussing the screening amongst themselves. It really felt like our study had started an important conversation, and many men told us that they were going to schedule a screening and tell their friends to as well.

I’m planning to go into environmental or health policy after college, but this was my first experience with public health research. I saw firsthand how education empowers individuals to advocate for their own health, and how good information can change lives within a community. Open communication about scary, uncomfortable or hard-to understand health issues is key, and it can start with a simple conversation between friends on a park bench,

Abigail Mahoney

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