Michael Granieri, MD, speaks with fellow members of Duke's Movember team, the MoDukes, about their ‘staches. (Photo credit: Shawn Rocco)

People who donate money or fundraise for a cause are often silent heroes. However, unlike many fundraising efforts, it’s readily apparent who’s participating in one that’s currently taking the nation by its facial hair. The fundraiser in question is none other than the Movember movement. Its mascot? The glorious moustache…or ‘stache…or mo.

It is, quite literally, the face of men’s health.

The Movember Foundation is the world’s leading organization committed to men’s health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer, and men’s mental health. Since its inception in 2003, the foundation has raised $559 million, with more than 800 programs in 21 countries worldwide.

And for good reason. In the US, 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. That’s about 230,000 men every year, according to the American Cancer Society. But fortunately there is a positive outlook. When detected early, the five-year survival rate of prostate cancer is nearly 100 percent.

That’s what makes the moustaches popping up on men’s faces during the month of November so important (albeit, sometimes creepy. But I think we can all agree to look past the creepiness for a good cause, right?). Movember is all about fostering awareness for these dangerous diseases that can be prevented and treated with early detection.

Doctors Joseph Fantony, left, Michael Ferrandino, Anthony Galanos and Michael Granieri are just a few of the 200 members of the MoDukes. (Photo credit: Shawn Rocco)

“Movember is both a fundraiser and a way to build awareness for men’s health issues,” says Andrew Armstrong, MD, MSc, a urologic oncologist at Duke Hospital. “It’s aligned with our goals to identify the disease earlier, to treat the disease effectively, and keep men at the top of their game. We want to focus on research efforts and turn back the clock and help men survive a longer period of time with a good quality of life.”

Dr. Armstrong’s choice of ‘stache? The handlebar.

Recently standing in a conference room at Duke University Hospital (I’m a PhD candidate in Duke’s biology department), I was surrounded by a gaggle of physicians sporting a variety of ‘staches that look hilariously out of place with their crisp, white physician’s coats.

Michael Ferrandino, MD, specializing in prostate cancer, glanced at the picture of him from last year’s Movember campaign being projected on the screen behind us. He looked one part bona fide gangster, complete with fedora, and one part medical doctor, although I noticed his mo was looking a bit sparse.

“It took me a month and that’s all I could really grow,” he says laughing. “This is the third year for Movember at Duke, but the first year we’re extending it to the entire campus.”

Participants in the Movember movement can raise funds either individually, or through a team effort. Funds are used to support research programs worldwide, which are run by the Movember Foundation, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and the LIVESTRONG Foundation. In the US last year alone, over $19 million went directly to these research programs.

Members of Harvard's Movember team, Bellissimo, re-enact the scene where ether was first used as an anesthetic in 1846 at the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Photo credit: Adam Feldman, MD ... in pink tie)

In past years, Duke’s Department of Urology tried to raise funds for their Movember campaign in a silo, but this year they’re amplifying their effort by making it an institution-wide event by including the athletics program, undergraduates and graduate students, fraternities, residency programs, Duke Hospital and the Duke Cancer Center. They call themselves the MoDukes.

And the MoDukes are not the only ones who have banded together to form a team. Over 100,000 teams are participating nationwide—a breeding ground for a little friendly competition.

“Last year, Harvard raised $90,000. This year, I was confident we could significantly increase our fundraising efforts, matching Harvard’s success,” says Michael Granieri, MD, a resident in the Urology Department who spearheaded the effort at Duke (and says his facial hair leaves much to be desired).

“Our real goal has been to beat UNC in fundraising, and to set our sights on Harvard, as well,” Armstrong interjects.

This gets me wondering: What happens when moustaches go head to head in battle?

Incredibly creative team names and clever ‘stache puns, apparently. Just a quick search around the Movember website will show you what I mean. (My favorite: “We moustache you a question. But we’ll shave it for later”).

But this also brings to the forefront the sentiment that a little competition can cultivate forward progress, initiating conversations in a grassroots way.

I asked rivals at Harvard to weigh in.

“I think it’s great,” says Adam Feldman, MD, MPH, a urologic oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “[Duke] should do their best. It can only benefit our patients.”

Members of the MoDukes showing off the jocular side of Movember, poking fun at team members not gifted in growing facial hair. (Photo credit: Samiha Khanna)

Feldman, who admits his moustache is a little itchy, is part of the Harvard team that calls itself Bellissimo, a punny way to make it clear that their mos are “very beautiful”, (although Feldman says he can’t take credit for the name. But what he can take credit for is raising almost $9,000 to date for the Harvard team.)

And despite the itchiness, he’s growing a moustache to support all of his patients with prostate and testicular cancer. “Movember is important for improving clinical care through research efforts and fundraising,” he says.

I also spoke with Philip Kantoff, MD, Director of Harvard’s Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology. In a brave and incredibly heroic feat, in addition to growing his ‘stache (much more gray than last year, he tells me), he promised to dye his hair blue if the Harvard team can raise $100,000 by November 20.

Now that's raising the (handle) bar.

“At Harvard, we are crossing institutional boundaries [to meet our goals],” Kantoff says. “We’ve been participating in Movember for the last three to four years and each year we’ve raised more money.” (He also confirms the juicy rumors I keep hearing that institutions such as UCLA and UCSF, along with Duke, are trying to one-up Harvard—which has, in years past, been the top academic fundraising team.)

The institutional rivalries are part of the idea behind the Movember campaign.

“We were contacted by the head of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, Jonathan Simons, MD, to start this friendly competition. It’s all in good fun,” says Duke’s Armstrong.

And fun they are having. With Fu Manchus, handlebars, poking innocent fun at those who can’t grow facial fuzz, and blue hair, researchers and physicians at our nation’s leading institutions are clearly doing their part for men’s health.