Letting Go of Superman
Redefining Masculinity in the Wake of Cancer
by Chris Frey, MSW, ACSW, LCSW
I vividly remember my excitement six years ago as I began to regain my energy, strength, and focus after completing treatment for stage IV throat and neck cancer. However, along with my progress, I found myself becoming irritated with my wife as she continued to check in with me, asking about my day, reminding me of my commitments, and making sure I was taking care of myself.
For months, my wife had met the gold standard for caregivers. She was compassionate, nurturing, attentive, committed. She had been my advocate, my partner, my coach, and my cheerleader. So why was I grumbling under my breath (and over my breath), grousing as she continued to act in her gently protective way when I was forgetful, slow to regain weight, or reluctant to get out of the house?
The Threat to Masculinity
In a moment of clarity, I realized that as I recovered, I was asserting my masculine need to be seen as independent and competent, two aspects of my identity that I believed had been seriously compromised by cancer. This was exacerbated by my growing awareness that, while some of the side effects of my treatment were temporary (extreme fatigue, chemo brain), others were permanent (face and shoulder numbness, dry mouth, thyroid issues, skin damage, radiation tattoos, my vivid sense of mortality). I was adjusting to being forever changed, inside and out. The extended period of my dependence on the physical, financial, and emotional care of others coupled with the lingering impact of cancer found me at times responding to simple, well-intentioned questions and concerns as an affront to my manhood.
My feelings and actions are not unique among male cancer survivors. We’re immersed in a culture that teaches that independence and productivity are at the core of a man’s worth. The level of vulnerability brought forth by cancer often challenges our traditional male values, posing a very basic threat to our masculinity.
The Challenge to Treatment
Strength, independence, and self-reliance are valued qualities among men, and these can be essential to your ability to commit to the rugged road of cancer treatment and maintain the motivation required to fully participate in your treatment plan. However, the degree to which you adhere to traditional gender roles can affect your ability to be straight-forward with your healthcare team and allow yourself to get the physical, emotional, and spiritual support you need.
It’s not uncommon for a man to respond to his doctor’s question of “How are you doing?” with “Pretty good” or “Fine” when this is not the truth. If you’re struggling with treatment-related side effects, this lack of transparency can greatly affect the quality of your care. Further, it can result in isolation and overdependence on your primary caregiver, conflicting with your desire for independence. To get the medical and psychosocial support you need to improve your quality of life, you must work with your entire healthcare team and let them know about any ongoing physical and emotional issues you’re experiencing. This may require adopting a broader definition of manhood.
A New Point of View
In speaking with male cancer survivors and their loved ones, I hear story after story of men who, like me, found cancer to be an attack on their vital sense of autonomy and competence. Usually, these stories begin with, “Well, you know the way men are …” However, if we believe this rigid male way of functioning is completely hard-wired, without the option of choice, we cannot push beyond our comfort zones to accept support, even when we need it most.
Rather than viewing cancer as an attack on your manhood, another possibility is to think of cancer as an extraordinary challenge that calls for extraordinary resources. Within this challenge lies the opportunity for you to retain independence, strength, com- petence, and self-reliance while cultivating tools to combat feelings of isolation, dependency, and weakness, and reclaim your sense of control. Remember that courage comes in many forms. It takes a special kind of daring for us as survivors to step beyond our comfort zones, allowing others to see not only our strength but also our vulnerability.
Chris Frey's 10 Ways to Shed the Superman Ideal and Accept Support
1 Think “team.” A fellow survivor once told me that before each game, his high school basketball team would huddle in a circle with one hand raised, their heads touching together. In unison they’d shout, “Together, we attack!” You can apply this team approach to your cancer treatment, drawing on the collective strength of your support system and your healthcare team.
2 Let yourself trust. Putting your trust in others can be difficult, but you don’t have to change who you are or what you believe to build a strong support system. Remember, even John Wayne had a trusty sidekick and a good horse to rely on.
3 Be honest. Asking questions and reporting your side effects, worries, and setbacks to your healthcare team will improve the quality of your care.
4 Open up to others. I’ve heard stories of men meeting for the first time in cancer clinic waiting rooms and striking up conversations about everything from their diagnoses, side effects, frustrations, and fears, to their jobs, families, and local sports teams. These informal chats between men in similar situations can provide comfort and sometimes even lasting friendships.
5 Don’t discount organized support. Whether they’re face-to-face, online, or by phone, support groups can provide you with practical information, social connection, and emotional support from a place of shared experience.
6 Remember who you were before your diagnosis. You’re more than your cancer. Your opinions and participation in other areas of life still hold weight. Many men continue to work, play, parent, and partner through cancer treatment.
7 See the humor in life. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about serious subjects with a bit of humor. I have a list of moments from my journey that I find humorous, including the time my wife and I decided we needed to get out of the house and go see a movie. We didn’t have the energy to read any reviews, so we simply picked a movie starring several of our favorite actors. Much to our surprise, it turned out to be a movie about the friendship between two men, one of whom had cancer.
8 Say no when you need to. You may not always feel like talking when family members or friends ask how you’re doing. “I don’t want to talk about it” is a perfectly acceptable response. Likewise, when someone offers help, you may not immediately accept the assistance. But you will know that someone cares and is available should your needs change down the road.
9 Accept acts of kindness. A caring act actually may be more meaningful and easier to accept for some men than caring words. Shortly after my surgery, a friend of mine took a chainsaw to a tree that had fallen in my yard. I was touched by his kindness.
10 Don’t forget to feel. In many ways the idiom “Big boys don’t cry” is still alive and well in our world. I often respond to this cliché with “But big men do.” Difficult emotions are a natural part of the cancer journey. It’s OK to express them.
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Chris Frey is a psychotherapist, teacher, and stage IV throat and neck cancer survivor living in St. Louis, MO. He is the author of I’m Sorry, It’s Cancer: A Handbook of Help and Hope for Survivors and Caregivers.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2014.