By William Goeren, LCSW-R, ACSW, BCD
Director of Clinical Services at CancerCare
The words “you have cancer” are life-altering. Responses to that news vary, but there are also commonalities. As an oncology social worker who has counseled many men, both individually and in group settings, I have found that men diagnosed with cancer often cope by retreating, and sometimes they shut down emotionally. They withhold or suppress their feelings, refrain from seeking support and isolate themselves from loved ones, family and friends.
A common and primary component to this suppression and isolation is that many men, upon receiving a diagnosis grapple with a change in, or a loss of, their sense of identity. Cancer, and the effects of treatment, can compromise their abilities to fulfill certain roles, such as a financial provider, husband, intimate partner, or hands-on parent or grandparent, leaving them asking the question, “If I cannot perform these duties, then who am I now?”
One of my patients, Laurence, joined a face-to-face CancerCare support group for men after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and undergoing a prostatectomy. Initially, he was withdrawn, depressed, overwhelmed, and burdened with a great deal of confusion and regret over the life-altering effects of his treatment choices.
Over the next several months, I watched as Laurence listened intently as the other male group members shared their cancer journeys. He began to identify with their struggles and triumphs, and slowly started sharing his own powerful and poignant story. The other men provided a safe and secure atmosphere for Laurence to challenge his defensive and suppressed feelings. With the support of the other men in the group, he began to trust others, and also himself. His walls slowly began to come down, tentatively at first, as he allowed himself to open up, become more vulnerable, engaged, and involved with other people.
By finding his voice, Laurence was able to accept his new reality, to take risks and to confidently step back out into the world. I’m proud to say that the same man who was once afraid to speak in a group of eight recently shared his personal experience at a national cancer symposium, profoundly moving hundreds of attendees.
When looking back on his time in the support group, Laurence feels that an emotional weight has been lifted. “The group as a whole has become like a unified support system where anything goes – any question, any topic, any fear,” he says. “It’s about surviving our lives and it’s been very helpful. I’ve witnessed that many men are like clams and they hide. It is very important for me to be aware of my feelings and use them to see and interpret my life.”
As Laurence experienced, it can be very helpful to talk to others who are facing similar feelings and challenges. A support group offers a safe space to connect with others and to receive and offer support. If a group setting is not right for you, speaking one-on-one with an oncology social worker can help you develop strategies for coping with some of the more complex emotions and concerns you may be experiencing. Resist the urge to retreat – there’s help available, and it can change the course of your future.
For more information about finding support, and for other helpful resources, visit www.cancercare.org.
William Goeren, LCSW-R, ACSW is Director of Clinical Programs at CancerCare. In this role, he is responsible for oversight of the organization’s clinical programs that are provided free of charge to anyone affected by cancer.