Men's health goes mobile

A mobile clinic known as the Man Van aims to save prostate cancer patients’ lives.

‘Men tend to neglect their health more than women.’ Professor Nick James may generalise but statistics about prostate cancer back up his concern.

With 47,000 new cases each year, prostate cancer is the most common form of male cancer. But in 25% of cases men only seek medical help when their cancer is at an advanced stage and is too late to cure. When they go to hospital with urinary retention, for example.

‘One very obvious way that you can improve outcomes is by making the diagnosis earlier,’ Nick explains. ‘That’s where the idea for the Man Van came about.’

The van is designed as a place where men feel comfortable to discuss their health. There are sofas instead of examination couches and the nurse-led clinics will offer a range of non-invasive tests covering everything from a health questionnaire to checks for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Professor Nick James and the Man Van team

Men with a family history of prostate cancer or who have urinary symptoms suggesting they might be at risk will be offered a finger-prick blood test. If their results are abnormal, they can be referred for further testing straight away.

The van will focus on men of working age by visiting employers, because younger men diagnosed with prostate cancer have worse outcomes than older men. High risk communities, such as Afro-Caribbean men, who have double the risk of developing prostate cancer and an increased risk of death once diagnosed, will be encouraged to get themselves checked out.

After initial testing with staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the van will visit other workplaces including Birmingham City Council and businesses with links to the trade union Unite (see Inspired by Johnny below). Nick’s eventual aim is for it to visit employers across the West Midlands region.

Research is a key part of the project. Nick hopes to demonstrate that by finding an at-risk population early, patient outcomes can be improved. Men who give permission will have their DNA taken through saliva samples, and those diagnosed with prostate cancer will be asked to donate samples of their tumours, forming a ‘tissue bank’ of information.

‘We can go back to patients’ initial samples and look for markers in their DNA that predict what kind of outcome they would have with prostate cancer,’ Nick explains. ‘These sort of databases have proved to be enormously valuable at unlocking who is at risk of a disease and who isn’t.’

Eventually there could be similar vans across the UK, as Nick hopes the project will quite literally be rolled out by the NHS to help improve outcomes and save treatment costs. He is also excited by the project’s potential to catch other diseases, such as liver cancer, earlier and potentially save lives.

‘If we can show this is an effective model, it will be more widely developed,’ he says.

Inspired by Johnny

Jazz musician Johnny Hoo, who was one of Nick’s patients, was the inspiration for the Man Van project. When Johnny, Nick, and musicians including Courtney Pine held fundraising concerts in aid of prostate cancer research, they realised there was a need to get information to groups of men most at risk. These groups include the Afro-Caribbean community and those working in manual jobs. Sadly, Johnny recently died from his prostate cancer after a long illness. Nick and his team set up the Man Van outside his wake at Edgbaston Cricket Ground, where it attracted much interest and many offers of help with volunteering, as well as television coverage from BBC Midlands Today.

Johnny’s wife, Lesley, is a trade union official at Unite, which uses buses to visit workplaces. ‘We hit on the idea of the Man Van as a way to take health information and access to places where people work,’ Nick explains.