How Gilda’s Club Threw Me an Emotional Lifeline After Cancer

November 18, 2020
Ron Cooper
Ron Cooper

Ron Cooper writes about the funny and serious sides of cancer. He is the author of “A Grateful Survivor” (Amazon) and blogs at RonCooperAuthor.com. Come along for the ride on his cancer journey!

Handling our emotions is often not the forte for men, but after pushing myself to join the Gilda's Club for cancer survivors, I found an emotional lifeline that let me process everything that came with cancer.

So many men diagnosed with cancer go radio silent. I know, because I did when I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2014. I stubbornly resisted sharing all but the very basic information about my illness with close family. The rest was left unsaid.

I told family to keep my cancer close to the vest. To keep it off social media. To even keep it from me, as I was in complete denial at the time.

I did attend a prostate support group for about a year after surgery and found the other men eager to share advice and insights into their cancer journey. But they avoided discussing feelings and I needed to fill that void, still, I made no effort to widen my connections in the cancer community.

Through family members who belonged, I knew Gilda’s Club tended to the social and emotional needs of its members, a heart-to-heart community of cancer survivors. But I was uncomfortable in baring my feelings, so persisted in putting off making the call.

A Cocoon of Silence

In retrospect, I robbed myself of the rich and profound relationships that I have since experienced. At the time, I enveloped myself in a cocoon of silence that few apart from my wife and close relations could pierce.

Deep down, I wanted to open up but rationalized that men don’t share their feelings. Men don’t look below the surface. Men don’t cry. I was following in the footsteps of generations of men who have rebelled at the very thought of talking about their feelings.

Emotions are strange bedfellows for men. We’re supposed to be the strong ones, the rock, the unmovable mountain, the protector. There is scant time to look inward.

There’s plenty of time to work, though. You can choose to bury yourself in work and cancer’s stark reality won’t consume you. You’ll still maintain some measure of control as the situation goes sideways. Sharing your feelings makes you vulnerable and that made me extremely nervous.

A Welcome Discovery

That whole mindset changed when my wife and I saw the movie, “Love, Gilda,” in the summer of 2018, nearly four years after my diagnosis, at a showing sponsored by our local Gilda’s Club.

I was deeply moved by how the funny comedienne Gilda Radner coped with her illness. She drew emotional support from her devoted husband, actor Gene Wilder, and psychotherapist Joanna Bull. Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at age 42. Wilder, Bull and others co-founded Gilda’s Club in 1995.

Like Radner, I really needed someone to throw me an emotional lifeline. I got that at Gilda’s Club when I swallowed my male pride and went to the orientation session just days after the film screening. The floodgates opened and my innermost thoughts began pouring out.

I blossomed into a full-fledged survivor at Gilda’s, joining a writing group and twice serving as a judge for a teen cancer writing and video competition. My wife and I also attended Gilda’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Day dinners and special programs such as nutrition education for survivors. I have found a home at the club, along with close friends in a mixed support group to discuss joys and fears. It’s very comforting.

Even though we’re strictly Zooming for now, Gilda’s Club is my second family. I wish I had gone there sooner. Gilda’s also has helped me to face up to my denial of cancer and the anger that goes with hearing that awful word.

At Home with Gilda’s

Recently, after a three-year hiatus, I made a homecoming trip to my prostate support group which holds monthly Zoom meetings. These fellow survivors were welcoming. I am one of the seasoned members of the group, helping newcomers to prostate cancer get grounded and keep them from feeling isolated. That gives me a sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Then again, I count, too. I also need to be heard. Cancer puts you on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a dizzying ride. Something needs to bring you back down safely to Earth. Someplace has to provide a soft landing.

For me, that place is Gilda’s Club.

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