When Michael Rovito was 17, he discovered a lump on one of his testicles.
“I thought it was cancer,” he recalls. “I had no idea what to do, and back then there wasn’t the Internet.” A visit to a urologist revealed the lump wasn’t cancer, and Rovito didn’t think much of it until he had a second scare in graduate school.
The second recurrence provided Rovito the impetus to begin researching health risks specific to men. “If I have the power to inform other guys about some of the risks they have being a guy, then I am going to do it,” he says.
“A year after getting my Ph.D., I co-founded the Men’s Health Initiative,” explains Rovito. The Men’s Health Initiative (MHI) is a collaborative effort of researchers and students who study men’s health issues and engage in public health outreach.
Rovito, a health sciences pre-clinical instructor in UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs, began offering MHI research fellowships for students in 2011. The positions provide students with opportunities to conduct research, publish in peer-reviewed journals and conduct public health outreach. In the 2012–13 school year, more than 40 students vied for 15 unpaid research fellow positions.
Part of MHI’s mission is sharing information about health and wellness. “During last year’s Save Your Balls event, we spent five hours on campus handing out literature, playing informative trivia games and giving out prizes to approximately 500 students,” Rovito says.
MHI’s research director Chase Cavayero, ’13, says, “I didn’t realize how much men need help in getting information. It is typical of men to ignore symptoms.”
“What boys are told as kids leads to health outcomes later in life,” Rovito says. “Boys are often taught not to cry, especially if they get hurt.”
“I have been blessed with great mentors, and I always say that when I have the chance to mentor somebody, I will, because that is what propelled me to the next level,” says Rovito.
He continues, “Any wife, mother, sister, aunt, grandmother or female friend has a vested interest in keeping their male loved ones healthy. Within the MHI research fellowships, 60 percent of our applicants are women.”
MHI research fellow Amy Elliott, ’13, says she became involved in the group due in part to her father’s battle with prostate cancer. She says, “Prostate cancer is known as an elderly man’s disease, but my father was diagnosed at age 53.”
Elliott worked with Rovito to plan a seminar on sexual health and relationships, which was attended by more than 200 UCF students. She says, “Some public health officials use statistics about pregnancy and birth control to try to scare students into compliance. We were trying to relate on a personal level to create audience feedback and sharing.” The project led to Elliott’s first co-authored research publication with Rovito and other research fellows in the academic journal New Male Studies.
Cavayero, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, says that working with Rovito has made him more accepting toward getting treatment, if needed, and helped him discard macho attitudes. He says, “I have become more involved in advocating for my family’s health.”
With Rovito’s guidance, Cavayero recently published a piece on robot-assisted urological surgery procedures in UCF’s Undergraduate Research Journal.
“What is the point of public health if you don’t reach out and inform people?” Rovito asks. Offering free lectures on sexuality and health to the university community, he sums it up thusly: “I want to go out and talk to guys about their health.”
Dr. James Leone, an assistant professor of health at Bridgewater State University who has collaborated with Rovito for the last three years, says that Rovito has done good work getting younger people and the community involved with the topics of men’s health.
Leone says, “We’ve been lulled into believing that men die sooner and take more risks, so we ignore it. We have talked about redefining men’s behavior and understanding how masculinity adds to the picture.”
Rovito, who grew up in Mount Carmel Township, Pa., credits his working-class upbringing with his ability to talk about sensitive issues like testicular self-examination and colorectal cancer screening.
“I was sweeping the floors of my dad’s mechanics shop,” says Rovito, a first-generation college graduate. “I knew the guys who smoked cigarettes, chewed tobacco and cursed — salt-of-the-earth guys — and that helped me learn to talk to people. The problem is that a lot of academics lack empathy. They give you a pamphlet, and it’s like reading stereo instructions. It’s ineffective and doesn’t work. The message needs to be more personable, with heartfelt intentions.”