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Letting Go of Superman

Redefining Masculinity in the Wake of Cancer

by Chris Frey, MSW, ACSW, LCSW

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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.

Author of Article photo

Chris Frey

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.

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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.