Each month, I have the privilege of facilitating the male-only cancer support group that I started nearly a year ago. This group consists of men, most typically aged 50+, who have been diagnosed with cancer and are, as several group members have succinctly put it, “just trying to live life.” Some attendees are recently diagnosed, whereas others were treated years ago and are now in remission from cancer.
Most group members have never been in a group before. While each group member initially attended the group for his own reason, these men have, over time, come to see that they are not so different from one another. Aside from the obvious bond—they all have gone through cancer treatment—they have come to see other characteristics they share. As one member said in the most recent group meeting, “all of us are tackling this head-on.”
When some individuals are faced with cancer or anything else they don’t want to face, they run away. Some may literally run away. More frequently though, they simply do not show up in some meaningful way. For example, if someone continues to experience a pain that sends off alarm bells that something is not right, they may avoid getting it checked out by a doctor. Alternately they may continue to mask the pain with a short-term solution to an ongoing or worsening problem. While avoidance is a coping style that affects both sexes, it is well established, both in research and anecdotally, that this is not an uncommon coping style in men.
Avoidance is powerful. Because it has likely been adaptive for people in the past, it may become a default response. People have learned that avoiding something means you don’t have to actually deal with the uncomfortable consequences or emotions. In getting to know the men in this group, what has struck me is that many of these men would have characterized themselves as one who would have avoided directly addressing emotionally challenging issues in the past. Now, they each have made the decision for themselves to directly address the impact of their cancer.
Although a psychologist makes and shares observations, when the group members make the same observations in themselves, the impact is greater. The men in the group believe they have grown as individuals as a result of joining this community and by addressing the emotional impact of their cancer. They are each grateful for this exclusive group for men who are facing cancer.
While I have provided the opportunity for group, ultimately they are each responsible for actually attending group. They each made their own decision to carve out the time and to show up for group. They made a commitment to themselves to participate in something that may have been outside of their comfort zone. They have chosen to be present for themselves and for the other group members. Every time they have contributed to group discussion, they have taken the risk to open themselves up and reveal their vulnerabilities; the extent of the vulnerabilities are not minor as a cancer patient. Topics such as relationships, coping, disability, identity, mortality, and taking actions to become healthier frequently come up. They choose to disclose when something is on their mind and they offer support when something is distressing to someone else. These men are tackling their cancer head-on.
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