A cancer diagnosis can be frightening and devastating for all who are subject to one. The uncertainty and revised perspective on life is a universal experience. However, cancer mentally affects men and women differently, with a diagnosis found to be more depressing for many men. Considering men experience cancer more than women, it’s wise to know how to support men through such challenging times. Many studies suggest that those with strong emotional support and community fare better. Whether you’re a caregiver or just a friend, you can play a critical role in how a man in your life copes and adjusts to life with cancer.
How Cancer Affects Men Differently
In order to understand how to support a man through cancer, it’s often critical to understand why it is particularly depressing for them. Cancer is emasculating for men in a multitude of ways, especially if they have cancer that affects their reproductive organs like the prostate. Men are already more hesitant than women to see a doctor because they are generally less comfortable with vulnerability than women and often internalize illness as a personal failing or shortcoming.
Cancer also challenges many more traditional roles of masculinity and identity that are a source of pride for men. A common side-effect of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation treatments is fatigue. So, if a father is diagnosed with cancer, treatments may challenge his ability to provide for his family and remain the “head of the household.” The fatigue also challenges a man’s ability to play sports or exercise which are commonly valued by them and also a main form of identity and socializing with other men. This may result in them feeling like they’re missing out on their friendships.
There are also even more personal side-effects of treatment for men. While alopecia, or hair loss, is one of the most obvious signs of a person battling cancer and is often more dramatic for women, men still find it depressing to resemble a stereotypical, “weak” cancer patient. In addition, treatments commonly leave men with erectile dysfunction and decreased libido that are often humiliating issues for men affecting their confidence and relationships. All of these issues combined leave men with a very different experience of cancer.
How to Support A Man Through Cancer
Say “I am here for you” and mean it.
Men will likely be more resistant to help because they often pride themselves on being strong and self-sufficient. So instead of asking how you can help them, let them know you are here for them and follow through.
Some ways you can help a man through cancer are by helping them make doctor’s appointments or sitting next to them and keeping them company during chemotherapy treatments. If you have a more distant relationship, dropping off a warm home-cooked meal or sending encouraging cards, books, or movie recommendations (preferably, comedy) can mean a lot.
If your family has been considering getting a dog, it is a wonderful idea to finally commit to one or even fostering a pet. There is truth to the common phrase “man’s best friend.” Dogs can be therapeutic and emotionally supportive for men, and even more so during hardship.
Give them space
Cancer is overwhelming. While women tend to turn to others for emotional support. Men tend to keep their emotions to themselves and prefer some distance to process things. Treatments like chemotherapy are known to cause “chemo brain” or a temporary cancer-related cognitive impairment similar to brain fog that is extremely frustrating for many patients. The loss of control associated with this brain fog can affect a man’s self-esteem negatively, especially if they are used to acting as a primary decision-maker in their family or social circle. If the man in your life with cancer seems to be labile after their diagnosis or treatments, it may be best to give them space, while still letting them know you care about them deeply.
Be supportive of romance
Cancer can be taxing on a relationship, but the hardship should ideally make you stronger. If you’re in a relationship with a man with cancer, it’s likely your romance will temporarily change. Your dates may be more casual and your intimacy and libido may subside. While intimacy likely isn’t the priority in your relationship for the time being, maintaining romance even in small ways will instill a sense of normalcy and control for them. Little things like leaving encouraging love notes before a cancer treatment or surgery, or even a candlelit take-out dinner at home after a long day can be small romantic gestures that can do wonders for a relationship enduring hardship.
Allow them to make decisions
Cancer often leaves men feeling helpless, which hurts their confidence. Especially if the man with cancer in your life is a son, let them decide what movies to watch, what games to play, or what food to eat. These simple, little things will help them feel less helpless and give them a small confidence boost. It’s also important to allow them the freedom to make their own time for friendships and relaxation. Having a supportive social network is extremely helpful in overcoming adversity.
Try to shift your focus
Don’t let the topic of your conversations revolve around cancer or treatment all the time. Even if that is what’s on your mind and what is happening in your life day to day, focusing on it in conversation can make it feel like the man with cancer in your life has lost all sense of self. When cancer topics arise in light conversation try to navigate to things that bring the man in your life joy, ideally hobbies that he has enjoyed consistently throughout his life to restore a sense of normalcy.
Continue your support after cancer
While advancements in treatment and healthcare have greatly increased the survival rate of cancer and made even the worst of diagnoses less intimidating, the experience and mental stress of cancer last long after treatment is over for many men. Physical symptoms, like regaining strength and regrowing hair, last long after someone is declared cancer-free and a person often needs ongoing support from their loved ones to adapt to life post-cancer. Consider joining your partner for morning walks or gym workouts together and if they struggle with hair regrowth, you can encourage them to take a topical hair loss treatment that allows hair to regrow faster.
The Bottom Line
Overall, men handle cancer a little differently and a diagnosis often threatens their identity and emotionally wounds them more deeply than women who tend to be more expressive of emotions and resilient to hardship. Try to keep in mind that men are just as sensitive to a diagnosis, but often do a wonderful job of masking their troubles. Supporting a man through cancer only requires a little more consideration and mindfulness of their unique concerns.
If you are looking for more resources and support for those going through chemotherapy, check out our other blogs:
What are some other ways you can support a man going through cancer? Let us know in the comments. We love hearing from our community members! If you have any further questions, feel free to contact us for more information.