Talking to Your Son About Men’s Health Issues

Did your father talk to you openly about health concerns? Depending on your age, the answer is probably no. But there are signs this is about to change.

A national survey revealed that 62 percent of fathers with sons wish their own father had been more forthcoming about health topics. As a result, 43 percent of fathers whose family doesn’t talk openly about their health say they want to break the pattern.

Reasons for avoiding these discussions run the gamut from traditional to embarrassment. Some say they don’t know how to talk to their sons about health topics because their father (figure) never talked to them about it, either.

Some feel too embarrassed or say they can’t find the words. Others fear their son won’t want to talk about the subject or they can’t find the right time to raise the issue.

As a physician who focuses on men’s health, I suggest you man up and have these important discussions with your sons. You might find the talks uncomfortable. You might find them awkward. But keep this in mind: It’s less about you than about your son.

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Communication Is Improving

Cleveland Clinic conducted the survey, "MENtion It," on more than 500 males age 18 and older living in the continental U.S. The survey was weighted to be nationally representative regarding the region, age and race/ethnicity. All participants were fathers or father figures to a boy and had a father or father figure growing up.

About 70 percent of fathers said their families spoke openly about health issues and concerns, even when they were children. About two-thirds (62 percent) of the remaining respondents wished their fathers had. And about 47 percent said they didn’t know their family health history until they went to the doctor as an adult.

Today’s fathers with sons do show some understanding of what’s important to talk about when it comes to health-related topics.

  • Almost 80 percent have had a checkup in the last few months or in the last year.
  • Sixty-two percent recommend going to the doctor for regular wellness checkups.
  • About half (52 percent) advise other fathers with sons to find out as much as possible about their family medical history and (50 percent) tell their children about it.
  • Forty-nine percent advise talking about health management before an illness or need for a doctor’s care occurs. (This advice is right on!)

Silence Does Not Equal Strength

A major hurdle to health discussions seems to be a reluctance to discuss personal health concerns for fear of causing the family unnecessary worry, being blamed for personal choices that may have contributed to a health issue, or appearing weak. You may be proud to be stoic, but failing to bring symptoms to a doctor’s attention puts you and your family at risk.

I have patients who had blood in their urine for a couple of years before they saw a doctor. Blood in the urine is a sign of bladder cancer, which is often curable when diagnosed early. By the time a couple of years have passed, the disease becomes aggressive or incurable.

If you stay silent because you feel awkward saying certain words, I can relate. When I started my medical training, I found it very uncomfortable to say words like “penis” and “scrotum.” There’s no rational reason for this discomfort; it’s an only social taboo that stops you. I guarantee the more often you speak these words, the easier it gets.

The Dangers of Not Knowing

Preventing cancer is the primary reason for needing to know your family's medical history and passing it along. Very often, when I ask patients about their family history of prostate cancer or the disease they are concerned about, they say, “My father had something, but I don’t know what it was.”

Relating your own experience with a medical problem may protect your son’s life. Many cancers, including prostate and colon cancer, have a genetic predisposition. If you or any close family member had prostate cancer before age 50, it’s important your son begin regular screenings for the disease in his 40s. Because African-Americans are at even greater risk of prostate cancer, we may recommend starting screenings even earlier, if there’s a family history of the disease.

Teaching your son how to do a testicular self-exam is important for the same reason. Testicular cancer begins to affect young men starting around age 15 and has a cure rate of 98 percent when caught and treated early.

The Value of a Physician Quarterback

The survey showed that many young fathers with sons feel more comfortable discussing family health history with their mother, rather than their father. And men of all ages who were surveyed prefer to speak about certain health issues with a father figure, rather than with their biological father. That’s all well and good, but they still need a personal physician.

Every young man should develop a relationship with a primary care physician who will serve as a quarterback for a team of physicians, should a medical problem arise. This doctor will watch out for all types of medical problems, not just those related to men’s health, and ensure your son receives the appropriate screening tests at the appropriate time.

After the first well-patient checkup, your son may not need to see the doctor again for several years. The truth is, you never know when you will have a medical problem. When one crops up, you should not be scrambling to find help.

If you have a relationship with a primary care physician, you can call when you have a problem and ask what you should do next. The doctor will see you or arrange for you to visit a urologist or other appropriate specialist.

Breaking the Silence

If you are among the men who are not afraid to discuss health issues with your families, bravo to you! If you are ready to start talking with your sons about health issues and concerns, here’s what you should talk about:

  • When explaining intercourse, discuss the risks of sexually transmitted diseases along with an explanation of how girls get pregnant.
  • Show them how to do a testicular self-examination in the shower. Tell them they should do it monthly and tell them to let you know if they feel any lumps or bumps.
  • Talk about erectile dysfunction and that it can be a symptom of cardiovascular disease when they get older.
  • Tell them to see a doctor right away if they have signs or symptoms of any medical problem and that silence is not a sign of strength.
  • Tell them your family and personal history of medical problems. If you don’t know these, ask your father or other blood relatives to tell you what they know.

Fathers who already speak to their sons about their health or plan on doing so say age 11 to 12 is the ideal time to start. If you choose to wait until the child is an adult, write down your personal and family medical history and leave it in a safe place in case you pass away prematurely.

Do Your Job

If you are doing your job as a father, you are going to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations with your kids as they grow up. Talking about health is like talking about being financially responsible, how to be a good spouse or parent, or explaining what death is all about. You have to dig deep to find the words to discuss these things. Sure, it’s more fun to talk to your sons about sports, weather, or work, but ultimately, their health — and yours — is more important.

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