Women get colds, men get flu

Why are blokes such hopeless hypochondriacs? Government neglect - and terror.
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The Independent Culture
I KNOW I'm ill. I must be ill. I'm coughing. I blow my nose frequently (and loudly). I feel tired. I need a lie-down. I'll have a Lemsip. My head hurts. Maybe another Lemsip. Hullo, everybody, look at me! I'm ill!

According to the old saying, a woman has a cold, while a man has flu. It's an outrageous slur. Of course I have flu. How dare anybody call it a cold? Where's my extra-strength allocation of sympathy?

Well, all right, I have revelled in a megadose of sympathy for more than a week. It was lavished upon me, day after day. Having whinged for a week about how dreadful I was feeling - "I'd better go and have another lie- down" - and luxuriated in the "poor-you" reactions, my wife has now come down with what I have got (secretly, I think she's probably worse off, but don't tell anybody). Except that she doesn't have flu. She just says "I'm not feeling brilliant," worries about the meetings that she has to go to and talks of having a cold. Even my 12-year-old daughter seems to have figured out the difference. She asked: "When I'm not feeling well, I try to look cheerful. Why doesn't Dad do the same thing?"

Now, I'm not a full-scale hypochondriac, by male standards. Admittedly, each time I detect a harmless swelling the size of a miniaturised mosquito bite, I find myself thinking: "Omigod. Is this the beginning of The Lump?" I almost get as far as selecting the hymns for the memorial service. Equally, each time I feel a slight muscular weakness or pain somewhere, I see it not as the result of too little exercise (or too much exercise, too quickly), but as an early scene in Hilary and Jackie. I can just imagine the music changing into a minor key, as the portentous reality sets in. Still, I have never managed the achievement of one of my relatives who, though in perfect health, reduced himself to tears by contemplating the tragic thought of his possible early demise.

Hypochondria is what men are for. We roll around in agony in order to make ourselves feel better - the domestic equivalent of theatricals on the football pitch. And we usually get the sympathy we are angling for, not just at home but even in the uncaring office. My female boss reacted immediately with appropriately soothing noises - "you poor thing" - when I whined about my unhappy state. My male boss merely noted that my "non- stop coughing" did not seem during our conversation to be as non-stop as all that. I was obliged to give a disgustingly prolonged bark to hammer the point home.

Tony Hancock, heroic blood donor, knew that a pinprick warranted a fanfare of trumpets. Any more than that was "an armful". Well, quite. The irony of this endemic self-absorption and hypochondria is that none of it has any effect where it really matters. We complain about the little things, claiming that they are big. We imagine major upheaval, without a shred of real evidence. But we do little to take any action about the genuine dangers that face us day by day.

In short: all mouth and no medicine. As a report published this week makes clear, men rely on women to look after their health. Health service spending, allegedly heavily biased towards women, bears this out. Men's health is all very well in a magazine full of advice on six-packs and perfect sex. In its more mundane forms, however, men still run a mile from the subject.

How many women do you know who take the danger of breast cancer seriously, and routinely do something about it? And how many men do anything about the threat of prostate cancer? Ian Banks, of the Men's Health Forum, points out that only one charity raises consciousness about prostate cancer, while 150 are linked to breast cancer awareness. Launching the Forum's report on men's health this week, the Minister for Public Health, Tessa Jowell, owned up: "Men do not take health sufficiently seriously. An enormous amount of attention is paid to women's health by comparison."

Eight times as much is spent on women's health as on men's health. For example, pounds 37,000 is spent every year on research for prostate cancer, compared to pounds 4m for breast cancer. Yet the death rate is almost comparable: 10,000 die of prostate cancer every year, 15,000 die of breast cancer.

You can blame Government skinflints. But perhaps it's all in the mind. We've just about got used to Well Women clinics, dealing with prevention as much as cure. But Well Men clinics? For millions in the UK, they are still regarded as a New Ageism too far. Steve Jamieson of the Royal College of Nursing says the two-track approach starts young: "Schoolboys are sent out to play football; schoolgirls are taught to examine their breasts."

Even the most obvious problems are sometimes too embarrassing for men to cope with. The Impotence Association claims that it sometimes takes months to persuade a man to make the crucial visit to the GP. Dr Banks notes: "Men are generally not good at discussing their problems, worries or fears." A recent Mori poll showed that 40 per cent of men only go to the GP when ordered to do so by their partner. To go to the doctor off your own bat would show a lack of real-mannish determination. Much easier to sit moping at home.

In an attempt to exploit male hypochondria, there is a suggestion that football games, pubs and clubs should broadcast propaganda messages that would encourage men to have regular check-ups.

But the trouble with check-ups is that they would require some logic. They would imply the necessity for some order, planning and thought, as well as the unpleasantness of admitting your own mortality. And everybody knows that the best way to deal with your health is not to think about it for years on end, and then to get hysterical when something finally goes wrong. That's the way it's always been. How can anybody suggest that such a tried and tested system should be abandoned? Heaven knows where it might all end. They'll be suggesting that men should talk about their feelings next. It's a terrifying thought.

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