‘Boys Don’t Cry’: How Men Can ‘Wrangle Emotions’ While Facing Cancer

Facing cancer can be perplexing for some men as many of us were raised within the “boys don’t cry” ilk, but I want to remind everyone that it’s OK to feel emotions.

After finding out I had pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer that often has a poor prognosis, I wanted to cry, but the tears didn’t come. Although profound sadness flooded me when the image came up of one of my three daughters’ weddings and me not being there to walk them down the aisle, I didn’t cry. Having been there to help them take their first steps, it seemed so unfair I would not be there to walk with them on their wedding day. Every part of me ached. Waves of sorrow broke over me. The call from the preacher, “Who gives this woman to be wed?” unanswered.

Many, if not most, men are raised within the “boys don’t cry” ilk. When we got thrown from our bike and lay on the sidewalk with our jeans torn and knees bleeding, the first thing our dads told us was, “Don’t cry, son.” I suppose a couple of millennia ago where tribes savaged each other, often wiping out the men while carting off the women, children and livestock, this made sense. But today thankfully a tough day is having to call AAA for a tow. But sadly, the idea of “boys don’t cry” remains stubbornly stuck in place.

I was raised with two brothers, so prior to getting married I understood little about women or how they think. It was only on getting married and fathering three daughters have I have begun to understand I needed to develop a softer side. And yes, I discovered it’s OK to cry. While I still don’t cry much, if at all, I am coming to terms with what I’ll call “the male stuff-it syndrome” is not the best way to handle my emotions.

I’ve both read and observed this can be damaging to one’s mental health. I can assure you these pent of emotions will erupt sooner or later. It is only a matter of time.

Facing cancer can be perplexing for us guys. We want to stay strong, fight it, and win. Kick its a**, so to speak. But inside we are terrified it will take us. So as a male, how can we wrangle our emotions amid facing cancer? For me, here are some of the things I’ve found that work.

Read about others’ cancer journeys, especially those written from a female perspective.

I often scan CURE® articles, especially the ones written by female authors to understand their emotional response to cancer and how I might learn from it. These women are quite insightful. Besides this, I read a lot about other people’s cancer journeys. One of my favorite books is, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs, a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lost her mom Janet to multiple myeloma, and then she herself lost a courageous battle with aggressive metastatic breast cancer.

It is a gripping read. Another book I’ve found quite insightful is “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler, a stage 3 colon cancer survivor. She exposes the false thinking around the “Prosperity Gospel” that says financial prosperity and physical wellbeing are always God’s will. Said another way, bad things don’t happen to good people, or the corollary: if something bad happens to you then you must be bad. Besides wanting to understand the female perspective on cancer, one of the reasons I read these books and many others like them is I wanted to understand how to write about my cancer without so to say “depressing the hell out” of readers. The other reason I read these two books and I recommend anyone read them, especially other males, is they shed light on how to think about cancer and what it does to our minds. Read about others’ cancer journeys, especially those written from a female perspective.

Write about what’s happening to us.

Writing can take many forms, from a simple text or email, to journaling, to posting things on the web, to short articles in local publications, to personal essays all the way to writing a memoir. All are beneficial but a lot depends on how public you want to be about your struggles. After four years of stuffing my emotions deep within me, I hit send on an article to a cancer publications. An editor got back to me a couple of days later and said they would love to publish it.

Soon a connection with CURE® led to a contributor opportunity – something for which I am very thankful.

Getting out in the public, while it hopefully benefits others in letting them know they are not alone, washes away any privacy you may have thought you had. Depending on your level of comfort find a way to write about what’s happening to you.

Recognize your maleness.

As much I would like to learn to cry, to be more open with my deep fear my cancer will come back when I least expect it, I am most assuredly not a female. I am not wired that way. So, for me, the best solution I’ve come up with is to recognize I am who I am and to be thankful for who I am. It has been said, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. In this vein, I have recognized I need to cry more and try to connect with the hurricane of emotions blowing through me, but I’m still only ten percent of the way there. I have a long way to go but I am happy I have taken the first steps to get there. Recognize your maleness.

I can’t stop being male nor do I intend to. But we can deal with our “maleness” by reading about others’ cancer journeys, especially those written from a female perspective, writing about what’s happening to us, and recognizing our maleness.

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