My work involving cancer is very varied. Whether I am speaking at conferences or working with charities, generally there are many more women involved than men. Even in my work on patient groups, the same applies. This has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. However, in my role as a patient, things are very different. There is a much more even spread of men to women. Of course, cancer doesn’t discriminate between sexes! But it is a very divisive disease. Everyone involved with cancer, either directly or indirectly, deals with things differently.
If I put into the mix, the ‘Venus and Mars thing,’ which talks about the many differences between women and men, then it should not be totally unexpected that men deal with illness in their own way. That method tends to be, to shrug things off, ignore advice, and to definitely not visit the doctor, as that shows an element of weakness! This tends to create a state of confusion when faced with someone who has an illness. When chatting socially, particularly with a few beers, men find it very easy to talk. Football, women and business are just a few of the favoured subjects, and we can go on for hours! However, I have noticed that health conversations seem to dry up quickly.
One area of my work that I particularly enjoy is helping run a Prostate Cancer support group. It is obviously for men, but partners are invited; however, very few attend. From beginning to end, the guys don’t stop talking, and helping each other. Willingly sharing information, which is brilliant! Is that because they feel comfortable with other men? Why then does the picture change when in a domestic situation? Cancer and serious illness generally is a very difficult subject to talk about. The biggest issue appears to be a fear of saying the wrong thing. In most cases, people prefer to say nothing, for a fear of causing upset. Which can also be upsetting in itself. We will all be touched by cancer at some stage in our life. Therefore we guys need to improve in the way that we deal with health issues with our loved ones. It is not only the physical issues of cancer that make life difficult. If we are lucky enough to survive our treatment, then many consider that the tough stuff is just beginning.
The psychological and emotional fallout from cancer can last a long time, and in many cases, a lifetime. Our loved ones will need supporting through these difficult times. Feeling low, losing libido, losing a job, no longer feeling valued. These are just a few of the emotions they may be experiencing. However, my personal experience has shown me that the biggest issue people face, even in a very close family, is the feeling of isolation. This occurs, because ultimately, the person affected by cancer is the only one that can deal with their situation, despite the proximity of family and friends. At times it can be a very lonely place, and will be difficult for people who haven’t experienced it to understand. There are people that don’t want to talk too much about their cancer experience, but generally, they will be happy to tell you that.
Also no one wants to be defined by their disease, so they don’t want to talk about it on every occasion. It is a fine line to tread, and maybe that is why we men don’t do it so well. We are never really known for reading signals correctly. I remember that being said, back in my dating days! It is difficult to understand, but there are certain things that loved ones find difficult to talk about together. The irony of that is, normally, these are the things we should be talking about. With family and loved ones, is where we should feel safest, and on occasions, we men will need to take the lead. We are not good at looking after our own health, but we certainly need to liven up when it comes to talking to our loved ones about theirs. It is not the right time to be shy or embarrassed. This is when we are really needed!
By Chris Lewis