Reticent men and cancer: 4 insights

3 months ago
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A friend of mine started dating a man six months after he was diagnosed with cancer. At the start of their relationship, he was open about his health issues. And then cancer showed up stronger, and he walled himself off.

“He won’t let me give him any hands-on care,” my friend said. “And he doesn’t want me to be there emotionally for him.”

The couple split a few months later because the guy wasn’t willing to let my friend into his pain. Which means he turned away an amazing gift of love and support.

When my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer, the treatment of choice was hormone therapy, designed to kill testosterone. Which meant he would be going through menopause. Hot flashes, softened muscles, emotional ups and downs.

“I think it’s great we’re going through menopause together,” I said, probably a little too perky.

He didn’t find that humorous.

He once cried in front of his female boss. And another time while meeting with our insurance agent. Both incidents were humiliating for my strong, steady husband.

Add to that the most devastating side effect — loss of libido — and you can see how his maleness was being threatened.

Gary withdrew. He simply shut down his words and affections.

Paired with tight finances from his earlier unemployment and the care for my live-in mother with dementia, it was a heavy, hard, devastating season.

When my brother offered to fly Mom to Florida for a visit, Gary and I were free to talk in the public places of our home.

More than once, as I started dinner after work, he walked in the front door, headed into the kitchen, and began a conversation that couldn’t wait.

“Men tend to measure their level of success by their jobs, possessions and sexual performance,” he once explained.

This invited me to voice my thoughts over the loss of intimacy. “A woman wants to be romanced and pursued by the man she loves,” I began. “Sex is part of that, of course. But it’s also a dozen thoughtful little things. Suggest a date out. Bring me hot tea. Pretend you like chick flicks.”

So what keeps men from opening up to the people they love? Based on my experience, here are 4 insights:

1. It’s hard for men to express their feelings. 

The fall-out of cancer left Gary distressed. Among other things, he worried about who would want to employ someone with terminal disease; he worried about how I would survive financially after he died.

His emotions ran from fearfulness, to depression, to discouragement, to hopefulness … to hopelessness.

In time, Gary admitted the more he talked about cancer and its domino effect, the easier it became.

2. Men don’t do vulnerability.

“When a man starts to lose his sexual desire, it’s distressing,” Gary explained in one of our kitchen conversations. “And it’s awkward to discuss it with your wife.”

Saying these words out loud leaves a man vulnerable. It’s easier to keep it in. But it was clarifying for me to know what was going on in my husband’s head.

3. Men fear losing the person they love.

“You might not want to care for me if I become a burden,” Gary said in one conversation. “I need your heart to belong to me until the end.”

I cried. This was the man who loved for me and our children, who kept me laughing all these years. I was all in – for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.

4. Men have their own definition of success.

Once, Gary sent email to avoid a discussion that might produce tears: “It seems to bother me more when I see successful people and they talk about their jobs, houses and vacations. It’s not that I want what they have. It just causes me to feel that I’ve failed. And it’s feeling I have brought you down with me.”

His words fractured my heart. None of our recent setbacks were a result of anything Gary had done or not done.

This thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Gary was a highly successful man, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Now that I knew what was going on in his head, I could help him combat his concerns.

Gary and I made a new commitment to openness and honesty. We held each other more frequently, established a standing date night, and he redoubled his efforts at romantic attention.

As for my heart, it wasn’t going anywhere.

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