'Power of a moustache': How Movember encourages men's health, awareness

Recently the Movember movement has expanded to raise money for causes including prostate and testicular cancer, men’s mental health and suicide prevention.

Last year, thousands of people across the country saw November as an excuse to grow a moustache — and, as a result, raised over $18 million for men’s health.

The global Movember movement, which began in Australia, addresses the little-discussed fact that men are dying too early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men die an average of five years earlier than women in the U.S., and for largely preventable reasons.

The 1,250 men’s health projects that Movember has funded thus far — spanning 20 countries — are trying to change that, with the ultimate goal of achieving a 25% reduction in men’s premature death by 2030.

“Movember today is more relevant than ever… at a time where there's a lot of challenges coming towards us externally as a society, as well as towards men within that society,” Mark Hedstrom, executive director of Movember’s U.S. branch, told TODAY. “The power of a moustache as a fun way to engage in a very serious conversation is core to what we do as an organization.”

What Movember tackles:

Back in 2003, Adam Garone and his brother founded Movember as a way to increase awareness of prostate cancer, an illness that 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with in their lifetime. Yet, Garone told TODAY, no one was talking about it.

Since then, Movember has expanded to include testicular cancer, men’s mental health and suicide prevention — other topics that are difficult to talk about. According to a 2019 survey by Movember’s Australia branch, this lack of emotional vulnerability and openness is largely due to societal expectations of masculinity.

“I find that, in general, men think we're kind of too tough to talk about things or show emotion or ask awkward questions, whether it's mental health or testicular cancer,” explained Dave Franknecht, 33, a Movember participant from Hoboken, New Jersey.

Mark Shanahan, 55, a journalist at the Boston Globe, recently launched a podcast discussing his experience with prostate cancer. His openness surprised some people, but was a welcome discussion to others.

"When I would talk about this with my friends with my colleagues ... some of them were like, 'Dude, why are you talking about this?' But others were totally interested," Shanahan told TODAY.

Al Roker, 66, is also trying to raise awareness and erase the stigma: Last week on TODAY he revealed that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this fall.

"The problem for African American men is that any number of reasons from genetics to access to health care, and so we want to make it available and let people know they got to get checked," Al stressed on TODAY.

While the Movember movement may be better known for raising awareness of prostate or testicular cancer, Garone and Hedstrom explained that Movember’s added focus on mental health is hardly separate from its other two pillars: Mental health influences how one approaches cancer.

“We started looking at the mental health component of cancer and realized that there’s a lot of conversation that’s not happening around what happens with the treatment and the outcomes from treatment,” said Hedstrom.

Prostate cancer, for example, can lead to erectile dysfunction and a subsequent crisis of masculinity. Movember wants to cultivate a community where men feel comfortable talking about that.

“Our focus is on prevention, really around, ‘How do we help men develop coping skills and resilience so they don’t end up in a difficult spot or decision around potentially harming themselves?’” explained Hedstrom. “Engaging them earlier in their health journey to understand if they are diagnosed with prostate cancer, what are their treatment options? And how do we get them to a better quality of life post-treatment?”

The impact of Movember

Over the years, Movember has gotten involved with a range of worldwide initiatives to tackle mental health and prostate and testicular cancer. It’s supported work in biomedical research for improved cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, at the same time it’s funded community-level, culturally-specific programs that bring men and boys together for various activities — in the hopes of ultimately sparking conversation.

“So much of Movember is about having a conversation with the people around you, about the tough stuff in your life and what you're going through,” said Garone. “So that other people around you can understand the challenges that you might be going through, lend an ear, and encourage you to get some help if you need it.”

Franknecht has participated in Movember ever since being diagnosed with testicular cancer three years ago. Over the past two years, he’s raised nearly $20,000. And while he’s now cancer-free, his passion for Movember hasn’t waned at all.

One of the best parts of the movement is that it creates a forum for men to express themselves in ways that they might otherwise feel weird doing, Franknecht said. “Everyone we meet through it has a story,” he continued. “I like to share my story and encourage people that you can get through it, and there’s people out there that are going through the same thing you are.”

Aside from funding projects, Movember also strives to educate men on cancer facts, warning signs, and action items, like self-examinations and going to the doctor.

As Franknecht puts it, “You’re not too tough to talk about it.”

How to participate in Movember:

Turning your November into Movember is as simple as sporting a moustache. Movember’s website provides tips on how to best grow and groom the new addition to your face, as well as a few rules: You need to start with a clean-shaven face, and can’t have a beard or goatee at the same time as your ‘stache.

If you’re hesitant about the moustache part (or physically unable to grow one), there are plenty of alternatives. You can walk or run 60 miles at any pace over the course of the month, in honor of the 60 men who die by suicide every hour; or, you can host a virtual “mo-ment” — any kind of event that gets people together, from a gaming tournament to trivia night.

All of these options are ways to start conversations and inspire donations for men’s health. An easy way to collect funds is by adding a "donate" button to your Facebook posts.

Hedstrom emphasizes the unique benefits of participating in Movember during a particularly isolating time.

“We're really excited about it more than ever. It's not just that fun component of... hosting an event virtually or growing mustaches together, but also having more detailed conversations and checking in with each other,” he said. “Let's have a real conversation about how men are doing.”