Man Up! Taking Control of Cancer and Putting Stubbornness Aside

If the traditional male role model is one who is in control, confident and able to go it alone, then we have to face that fact that cancer is an unmanly disease.

"There is something in sickness that breaks down the pride of manhood." -Charles Dickens

By now, most are aware that when it comes to relationships, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” When it comes to how we handle illness, the differences — while not galactic in nature — are notable.

A recent study from the Washington State University pointed out that when it comes to illnesses that have more than one symptom, men cope worse than women. The alarming reality is that according to the American Cancer Society, one in two men are likely to get cancer in their lifetime. Additionally, the mortality rate from cancer is higher for men than for women. Since we know that being a man is, itself, a health hazard, it’s time for some serious soul searching. If that sounds too touchy feely, then let’s tackle this head-on, man up or maybe we should step up to the plate.

If the traditional male role model is one who is in control, confident and able to go it alone, then we have to face that fact that cancer is an unmanly disease. The trauma of this diagnosis hits most of us men with the one-two punch of an insult to our physical prowess and our mental stability. We’re no longer invincible warriors who can stare down the darkest of enemies. Struck by runaway grief, we often flounder in the waters of denial and anger far longer than is healthy. The "never let them know you're hurt" locker room mentality that once served us so well on playing fields only contributes to an increased sense of loneliness and desperation on the uneven surface of a life-threatening illness.

While there are myriad theories that explain men’s resistance to asking for help and ignoring personal wellness, they are best summed up by the following road sign:

It’s not easy, as a male cancer survivor, to admit that I suffer from stubbornness. In addition to running the risk of getting kicked out of 'the club' for speaking of this, it feels treasonous to call out one’s brothers’ shared shortcomings. But if pulling back the curtain to reveal that the all-powerful wizard is just a man enables just one of my brothers in cancer to seek help, it will be worth it.

I find this stubbornness in myself, even now. Currently, I’m in the holding pattern of, “Do I really want to know?” as I’m scheduled for an echocardiogram to determine the extent of possible damage to my heart from radiation and a chest X-ray to look for the return of cancer. It’s a strange inner battle as the "manly" thing to do would be to say "Bring it on!" However, the other side of my male brain won’t allow me to stop to ask for directions has created a list of reasons why I can’t keep this appointment. I know full well that if something is happening in my body the earlier it’s caught, the better. And yet ...Through my years of clinical practice and reviewing my own history as one who carries the burden of the Y chromosome, I’ve come to the realization that we’re a strange bunch. Most boys/men can be talked into the most irrational, dangerous and (let’s be honest) insane behaviors by other boys/men with the simple ask, "What, are you chicken?" Proving one’s worthiness to wear a "man badge" is so important when in the company of other boys/men that I believe we need to harness this power when it comes to health issues.

Rather than flooding men with the facts of the dangers of certain behaviors, handing them a list of all of the medical procedures they should have and scaring them with the reality of their mortality rates, we can do the following:

Me: I hear what you’re saying doc, but it’s a not a good time for me to have this procedure, there’s a lot going on at the office right now.

Man doctor: What’s the matter? You too scared of a little X-ray? (Starts to cluck like a chicken)

Of course I realize that this approach has multiple flaws, not the least of which is that it first requires showing up at the doctor’s office.

In order to help men catch up to women in the health department, we need to take a page from the playbook of our sisters in survivorship. They have known for a long time that reaching out to others, accepting support and sharing their experiences can be lifesaving. If we can get our brothers in arms to reach a hand out to the growing number of men touched by cancer, we may be able to live longer and redefine manhood itself.

The good news is that men have a long history of joining forces, having each other's back and giving it all for the team. Let's turn that energy on our health and save the stubborness for when it really counts — cleaning the garage, visiting the in-laws or going clothes shopping.

P.S. Shortly after writing this, I swallowed my man-pride, had the tests and am happy to report that all is well. Swallowing one's man-pride is easier when one's wife keeps asking if the appointments have been set up.