It is 16 years since Wendy Gough lost her teenage son Matthew to testicular cancer, an illness that young men didn't talk about back then – let alone tweet about. So she has looked on in some amazement as two of her disciples have used social media to begin to shatter this taboo, turning a subject that men were once too embarrassed to discuss into a source of gentle banter.
By their clever use of a Twitter hashtag – #feelingnuts – and an uncanny ability to attract celebrity endorsement, brothers Simon and Andrew Salter have ended a deadly silence and created a global conversation involving 100,000 people. It is not something that Ms Gough foresaw when she visited Verulam School in St Albans, where Matthew had been a pupil, to warn young men of the risks of a condition that claimed her son at the age of 19. But Andrew Salter was among the audience and the grieving mother's words left a strong impression.
Since Matthew's death, she has toured the country's secondary schools for a decade and a half. But, for the past three years, she has worked in parallel with the Salter brothers, who came to visit her at home and now have the same goal – only via the internet.
"I don't understand half of what they have done and they have gone way beyond what I would be able to do," she says. "In a small way, I have made a difference but I know that they are going to make a huge difference in changing the culture among young men."
The shared purpose of the Salters' Check One Two campaign and the Wendy Gough Cancer Awareness Foundation is to convince young men of the value of checking their testicles for lumps and to not be self-conscious in seeking medical help. "My son, at 18, didn't tell me for six or seven weeks that there was something wrong," she says. Matthew died within months – but early diagnosis is invariably a life saver.
And many lives are likely to be saved because the Check One Two campaign has spread across 157 countries, receiving help from stars such as Ricky Gervais, Carla Delevingne and One Direction. Campaign supporters share "Knacker-torial" guides on the six steps to checking for lumps. Some of the stars have shared the campaign's signature of a (clothed) crotch-grabbing photo. "That's not something I would necessarily approve of," says Ms Gough, "but it's grabbing people's attention."
Andrew Salter, 25, immediately impressed her when he and his brother Simon set out his vision for changing the mindset of a generation. The brothers have expanded the campaign so that they now work full-time on it with a staff of eight. They are being funded by an anonymous patron and work closely with another pair of brothers Simon and Phil Tucker, who run the media production company Attention Seekers.
Check One Two has also secured free expert support in marketing and digital analytics from media companies Brandwatch and The Engine Group. It is a cash-free campaign and Andrew believes that the lack of tin-rattling has been crucial to its success. "Rather than asking for money we ask for their time and creativity in spreading the message," he says.
Channel 4 is their latest partner and will broadcast The Feeling Nuts Comedy Night tonight as part of its "Stand Up to Cancer" season. The show is hosted by Jack Whitehall and features James Corden. It will also include a moving speeded-up film of a portrait painting of Matthew Gough, who inspired this movement.
The "simple and powerful message" of Feeling Nuts has impressed Health minister Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, who said " we have to make sure as the Government that the system is able to respond to those people who come forward as a result."
The Salters are far from finished. Their aim is total eradication of testicular cancer and they will now take their campaign to America where they plan to align themselves with one of the big broadcast networks and a major sporting league. After what they have already achieved no one will think them nuts.
'The Feeling Nuts Comedy Night', Channel 4, 11.05 tonightReuse content