A Special Message of Encouragement for Men
by Chris Frey, MSW, ACSW, LCSW
As I move through the world of aftercare, cancer prevention, and cancer research, I am amazed and impressed by the organized presence of breast cancer survivors. I have asked myself how this particular group of fellow travelers has created such a powerful voice amongst the multitude of survivors.
I don’t know for sure, but as a therapist with years specializing in men’s issues and gender concerns, this is my theory: One aspect of visibility and advocacy among breast cancer survivors is that the majority are female. Women, in general, value relationships and emotional support that we men, while hungry for this, are often socialized to discount or view in the negative. The openness to connection that pervades the lives of many women helps to promote a system of group support, advocacy for research, and dedication to prevention that has spawned a movement. This network provides an incredible community of empathy for the pain, and sometimes loss, that survivors experience, along with a joyful celebration of life.
As male survivors, we can learn from this. 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.” Whether expressing my concerns during treatment, experiencing the relief and joy of healing moments, or facing the possibility of unwanted outcomes, it has been OK, even essential, to set aside old worn-out ideas about masculinity and open my heart to those I most love and trust. Not everyone gets to see the softer side of me … but a few of my most precious advocates do.
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.”
When I hear fellow male survivors discuss the value of their support groups for prostate cancer, I am greatly encouraged. When I hear their disappointment that so many of us are unable to push through the extreme sense of vulnerability brought on by our illness and our culture, and so we remain disconnected from available prevention and support strategies, I am saddened.
Releasing emotional pain can free up energy for the tasks at hand. Independence, emotional honesty, and social connections are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary.
Opening our hearts to a wide web of community and connection also lightens the load for our loved ones, removing the unrealistic expectation that one or two people must shoulder the entire burden of physical and emotional support. Allowing a network of advocates into our lives can allay another fear carried by many families, that we, as men, will simply remain isolated in our pain, forfeiting that crucial fighting spirit.
This issue of disconnection also merits close consideration if you are a male caregiver. Isolation breeds fear, resentment, and depression, whether you are in recovery from cancer or are assisting a survivor through his or her journey. This will be especially critical if you have relied in the past on the survivor for most of your emotional sustenance and are now faced with the role of primary caregiver. The survivor will, at times, need to conserve his or her energy for the work ahead and will be comforted by the knowledge that you will seek input and understanding from other, healthy, sources.
Let me assure you that I do not propose this change in a casual way. For some of us, transforming a lifetime of playing our emotional cards close to the vest will come as a hard-fought battle. However, desperate times often call for desperate measures. For many of us, these are desperate times.
And so for men (and women), I offer the following affirmation: Courage comes in many forms. It takes a special daring for us as survivors and caregivers to step beyond our comfort zones, allowing others to see not only our strength but also our vulnerability.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Chris Frey is a psychotherapist, author, teacher, and stage IV throat and neck cancer survivor living in St. Louis, MO. This article is adapted from his book I’m Sorry, It’s Cancer: A Handbook of Help and Hope for Survivors and Caregivers.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2013.