The unique ways men deal with cancer

The unique ways men deal with cancer

Whether they have cancer or are the caregiver for a loved one who is sick, many men respond to illness by isolating themselves and suppressing their emotions. Though this response is ingrained by both biology and society, it can lead to physical and emotional health consequences.

By learning to process their emotions, men can become stronger in their fight against cancer and during survivorship, and also become better caregivers. Dennis Buttimer, a life and wellness coach at Cancer Wellness, leads a men's support group and shares what every man should know when facing cancer.

How men process cancer

Whether dealing with their own cancer diagnosis or that of a loved one, it is common for men to:

  • Think asking for support is a sign of weakness. "Men are less likely to seek support because we think we will be perceived as weak," notes Buttimer. "Actually, the opposite is true. It takes a lot of strength to ask for help."

  • Believe emotions are reserved for women. As caregivers, men may be tempted to ignore their emotions so they can support their loved one.

  • Isolate themselves."When dealing with emotional issues or challenges that scare them, men tend to be loners," explains Buttimer. "It is an instinct for men to want to go into their 'man cave' to figure things out. In our culture, many men believe they are supposed to go it alone and tough it out during trying times, including cancer."

  • Try to fix the problem."Men are 'supposed' to fix it, whatever it is," he says. "We pressure ourselves to figure out a solution and if we can't, we may believe something is wrong with us."

Health consequences of suppressing emotions

"If your emotions get packed down, they will come up at a future date in some way," says Buttimer. "Something may happen two weeks from now that will trigger whatever has been suppressed. It is like a pressure-cooker. If you don't release your emotions, they will explode eventually."

Ignoring your feelings can also make you physically ill and increase inflammation in the body, resulting in:

  • Decreased brain chemicals that promote a sense of well-being, which can increase risk of depression

  • Higher blood pressure

  • Increased production of stomach acid, which can cause gastrointestinal issues

  • Increased stress

"Emotions are energy," says Buttimer. "When you have all of this energy going through you, whether it is palpable fear, anger or sadness, if you stuff it, you are suppressing that energy and actually holding onto it. But if you breathe into a feeling and allow yourself to experience it, eventually the feeling will morph into something else."

Healthy ways for men to process their feelings

Men, these strategies can help you be more resilient during cancer treatment and survivorship, and will also help you be a better caregiver.

  • Connect with other men who understand what you are going through. The beauty of the men's support group at Cancer Wellness is that it allows men to normalize their feelings and break the unwritten "code" that men don't share their feelings. Support groups allow men to deal with their emotions and receive support in a healthy way.

  • Jot down your feelings on a piece of paper for five minutes. For example, you can say, "I'm really mad today or fearful about this." Once you are done, look at the paper and rip it up. This works because you get to express your feelings in a safe way, then use your masculine energy to do something about them by ripping up the paper.

  • Sit quietly for five minutes and take deep breaths. See whatever emotions come up as you are sitting there and let yourself feel them. If you are angry, allow yourself to feel angry. Soon the emotion will pass through you and you will move on to another feeling.

  • Talk to someone. You do not have to give a speech to your entire family. Just talk with someone close to you and let off a little steam so you don't compromise your health.

"It's okay to allow yourself to be all of who you are," says Buttimer. "When you allow yourself to experience your emotions, you will feel better, be more productive and feel more alive."

For more information on support groups at Cancer Wellness, check out our monthly class calendars.


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