This is the full text of my presentation this morning (11th June 2013) at the launch of the Irish Cancer Society’s report titled “The Excess Burden of Cancer Among Men” today as part of Mens Health Week 2013, according to statistics, men can be up to 3 times more likely to get common cancers than women; and are more likely to die from it as well. I’ve given this talk a number of times and I went off script a couple of times, most of it you have heard me say what I have outlined below before, but this was a new audience and regardless of how many times you hear it, Mens Health is a very important topic and the more people that get to hear the message, the better.
This weekend coming, my family will mark the 25th anniversary of my father’s death. He was just 51 when he died from complications following a stroke. I was only 15 and sitting what was known then as the Intermediate Certificate. Dad was badly overweight, he had his first Heart attack when he was 41, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and had to inject himself daily. I vividly remember being taught the various circumstances that might happen and which pill to administer if circumstances dictated. “If I collapse, give me the blue one, If I black out give me the red one”, I’m paraphrasing but that was the way we lived, the pill box was always kept on his person and went with him wherever he went. Many hospital visits followed in the next 10 years, including another heart attack and that stroke, and finally in 1988 my mother was widowed and had to raise 4 children alone.
At my heaviest, aged 39, I weighed nearly 20.5 stone, far heavier than Dad ever weighed and just 18 months away from when he was first admitted to hospital. At the time, my children were 6 and 4 and we all had a lot of growing up still to do. I knew I was heavy, I remember standing on the scales one day and the digits clocking up past 17stone. Whenever I weighed myself the numbers kept getting bigger but the extra weight never really registered. As far as I was concerned, I was still fairly fit, I had ‘big bones’ I didn’t look morbidly obese, I certainly didn’t feel morbidly obese. In my mind I knew exactly what I had to do, losing weight was easy, I just had to stop eating rubbish and exercise more, I could do it at any time. The internet provided me with all the answers I needed to have, cut this type of food out, run that distance a couple of times a week and things will get better. I’ll start tomorrow.
I came from a sporty family, my sister is a two time Olympian, one brother is a champion sailor the other brother could get up and run 10k in his sleep he is so fit. That was the kind of stock i came from. I was a fairly decent rugby player & referee, so it wouldn’t have been an issue for me to just do it. If I wanted to. Tomorrow, maybe.
But I didn’t, I didn’t change my diet, I didn’t exercise more, I didn’t go to the doctor and I certainly didn’t lose any weight; in fact the weight crept up and up and up and the heavier I got the less inclined I was to do anything about it. It was easier to sit on the couch, thinking about what to do, what not to eat and when I would start. I just never put my magnificent plan into practise.
I can easily pinpoint how I put on the weight, I ate too much. Working from home, it was all too easy to dip the hand into the cookie jar, I cooked healthy meals, but I ate two or sometimes three potions. After the children went to bed, I took root on the couch, switched on the TV and stayed there for a couple of hours. I would have no problem in polishing off a six pack of crisps, a complete pack of biscuits and any number of chocolate bars, large and small.
I wasent really living, just existing. I never played with the kids, I was incredibly self conscious about socialising and people’s perception of me, I always made excuses to get out of going out. This was no way to live and the more I thought about it, the more down I became. But I still felt I was in control and could start tomorrow, I just never did.
Then came my light bulb moment, I am a big Leinster rugby fan and the opportunity arose one time where I had to present two retiring players with a gift from the supporters. I still keep the photo on my phone to this day. Standing in between Malcolm O‘Kelly & Girvan Dempsey probably didn’t help my perception but that was it, in full colour, I was huge. The only word I could use to describe myself was ‘round’. My belly was pouring over my trousers, my shirt was bulging open my face was as red as a fire engine. It was easy to see I wasn’t in a good place and I couldn’t continue with my lifestyle the way it was.
My time on Operation Transformation is well documented and there is no need to go into it in any depth here, just to say that in the 7 weeks of the show I managed to get control back in my life. Part of my issues was understanding what was wrong, rather than learning how to put things right.
My first port of call was to my GP – I was physically able for the challenge but it was obvious from my first blood test in years that I was teetering on the edge of serious illness. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, borderline diabetic.
Next was to start exercising, my first session was a 20 minute walk that I just about completed, I can remember my first jog in Marlay park where I was overtaken by most of the Sunday afternoon walkers. But you know what, with a bit of perseverance, some jeers and lots of tears I did it, one mile became two, jogging became running and minutes slowly turned into hours.
By starting to exercise, and combining it with a healthy diet, I’ve taken control of not just my health but my life.
Research shows that high levels of body fat are associated with an increase of a number of cancers; It is projected that by 2015, 33% of men in Ireland will be clinically obese. We put our fat on around our bellys, that’s the highly visible sign, underneath the skin, the fat is ‘visceral fat’ that’s fat that covers our organs and is most associated with an increase in fat related cancers. Todays report highlights research at European levels that indicate the staggering fact that 17% of male Colon Cancer cases, 21% of male Lung Cancer cases and 14% of male Prostate Cancer cases could be prevented if the male population engaged in sufficient levels of physical activity.
In the 18 months since Operation Transformation I have run over 1500 miles in training, numerous 5k & 10k races, 4 Half Marathons, 2 Marathons and last weekend, my first Triathlon. I’m certainly not suggesting that the Irish male has to take to the extremes I have undertaken but I passionately believe that every man has it within them to make a change to their life, no matter small it is. Start slowly and work on it.
The bottom line is…
– If you can walk, you can walk faster.
– If you can run, you can run farther
– If you can cycle, you can cycle more often.
There are a few basic rules I follow now to try to stay on track
1) Be Honest
This is rule number one and if this doesn’t work, nothing will follow. Be honest about what I eat, when I eat it and why I eat it. Be honest about the effort I put into my training and especially be honest to my family. I want to go to bed at night knowing that I can look my children in the eye and say that I gave 100% today.
2) Understand the issues
I worked on discovering when I ate the most and as a result I could discover why. I kept a food diary, its not a huge exercise but being honest about what goes into that diary will highlight any eating concerns that raise their head.
3) Understand food
We are bombarded every day with what’s good for us and not good for us in our diet. It is every person’s responsibility to understand what we put into our body. Let’s teach our children to read the ingredients on back of the packet and we will take a huge step towards a healthier Ireland.
4) Understand exercise
This one is simple, you cannot lose weight without exercise. It is a simple balance of calories in, calories out. It doesn’t have to be excessive, just make a change to your lifestyle, take the stairs instead of a lift, get off the bus one stop earlier, bring the dog for a walk.
I gave up smoking in February 2004 and I apply the same advice that I used then to today’s efforts – take it one day at a time and the months and years will take care of themselves.
Its not easy to start, but it gets easier, I promise. The first step off the couch really is the hardest.
What I managed to achieve wasn’t about vanity, it wasn’t about a beach body or fitting into a new suit. I managed to take control of my own life, health and especially my happiness. I have no doubt whatsoever that every man has it within them to take control; it just takes one small step to start the process.