The words “you have cancer” are life altering. Responses to this news vary, but there are also commonalities. As an oncology social worker who has counseled many men, both individually and in group settings, I have found that men often—at least initially—cope with a cancer diagnosis by retreating, some by shutting down emotionally. They may withhold or suppress their feelings, refrain from seeking emotional assistance, and isolate themselves from loved ones, family, and friends, who are often frustrated in attempts to provide support. Many men retreat further into their work or sports, and others, into a lonely exile.
A common and primary component to this suppression and isolation is that many men, on receiving a diagnosis, grapple with a change in, or a loss of, their sense of identity, rejecting the notion of needing or wanting solace and support from others. Cancer and the effects of treatment can compromise their ability to fulfill certain roles, such as a financial provider, husband, intimate partner, or hands-on parent or grandparent, leaving them asking the question, “If I cannot perform these duties, then who am I now?”
One of my patients, Laurence, joined a face-to-face CancerCare support group for men with cancer, after a prostate cancer diagnosis and undergoing a prostatectomy. Initially, Laurence was withdrawn, depressed, overwhelmed, and burdened with a great deal of confusion and regret over the quality-of-life-altering effects of his prostate cancer treatment choices.
Over the next several months, I watched as Laurence listened intently as the other male group members shared their cancer journeys. He began to identify with the other members’ struggles and triumphs, and slowly started sharing his own powerful and poignant story. The other men provided a safe and secure atmosphere for Laurence to challenge his wall of defended and suppressed feelings. With the support of the other men in the group, he began to trust others, and also himself. These walls slowly began to come down, tentatively at first, as he allowed himself to open up, become more vulnerable, engaged, and involved with other people.
By finding his voice, Laurence was able to discuss and cope with his new reality, to take risks in connecting and asking for support, and to confidently step back out into the world. I am proud to say that the same man who was once afraid to speak in a group of eight recently shared his personal experience at a national cancer symposium, profoundly moving hundreds of attendees.