I Pretended to Be Tough After Learning of my Cancer Diagnosis

Men are often discouraged by society from openly sharing their emotions. A cancer survivor explains why lessons from childhood around how men should behave prevented him from finding support for his mental health.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is devastating, and as a result, I made several mistakes and oversights. I only thought about the physical impacts without considering my emotional and mental health. Even my health care team never alerted me of the non-physical impacts of a cancer diagnosis. The focus was purely on cancer and dealing with the physical side effects of treatment. I have since learned that it's critical to treat the whole person and not just the disease.

Although my health care team indeed failed me in this area, they are not entirely at fault. On serious reflection, I realize that part of the problem is that men tend not to admit they need help. In my experience growing up in a male environment, you were discouraged from talking about your feelings. Men were supposed to be tough, in control, and handle any problem single-handed. In school, if you showed any sign of weakness, you were a target for abuse.

Growing up under these conditions taught me to pretend to be tough, not ask for help and solve my problems without assistance. In the case of my cancer diagnosis, playing the tough guy worked against me. Therefore, even if my health care team offered me emotional support, I most likely would have refused. It took me a long time to realize the lessons learned in childhood influenced the way I handled my cancer diagnosis.

But I do have an ace up my sleeve. I'm blessed to have a very caring, loving and supportive wife. She recognized it was difficult for me to deal with my cancer diagnosis. And talking about it was out of the question. Instead, she would often sit by my side, holding my hand with her head on my shoulder. And rather than asking me questions, she was there to listen to anything I had to say without judgement or trying to fix anything.

It didn't take long for me to completely trust her, which helped me speak more freely and openly. And I found that sharing is incredibly therapeutic and has become one of my primary coping mechanisms. Since that moment, I realized that my emotional and mental health would need ongoing support. And it became clear that I needed to continue talking and find even more ways to help cope with my cancer diagnosis. For me, joining a support group was the answer.

That said, everyone will react differently to a cancer diagnosis. And there is certainly no right or wrong way to cope. But it is critical not to neglect your emotional and mental health. It's difficult to admit, but I'm not tough, and I don't know how to fix everything. And asking for help is still a significant struggle. I hope men of the future are more open and not burdened with these issues. If it weren't for the love and support of my wife, I'd still be hiding behind the “tough guy” persona, pretending everything was okay. Please don't overlook your emotional and mental health needs. Tough guys suffer in silence, and it's essential to find ways to cope.

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