Speak Up: Helping Young Men Talk About Cancer

Men are often reluctant to share their feelings. When trouble strikes, they tend to bottle it up, keep a stiff upper lip and carry on. This is especially true for young men facing cancer.

Cancer, for anyone, is a life-altering event. Regardless of how the surface waters look, or how a patient appears to the outside world, the undercurrents of grief and loss run quietly below. Inevitably, a change of vocational goals, status in relationships and spirituality, among others, comes with the territory. It’s a challenge to work through those changes in order to bask in the sunny side of survivorship.

Fortunately, women do a much better job talking about their journey than men. Studies show that women naturally talk about the holistic challenges that come with cancer—how to balance family and work, managing side effects, how they feel overall—compared with men, who tend to only talk, if at all, about the facts and figures of their disease—blood counts, when their next appointment is, etc.

Not only is the quality of those conversations different, but the quantity as well. For cancer organizations large and small around the country, only 1 in 4 of the patients served are men. With roughly the same number of females and males affected by cancer, the lack of men showing up for support services is a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

That’s where the idea for M Powerment cropped up. We wanted to bring together a group of men, united in their common struggle of cancer, to support one another through their recovery. Rather than congregating in the cold confines of a hospital meeting room or in a drab dungeon of a community center, we wanted to bond over beers at microbreweries—where men tend to chat with their fellow dudes about life, love and sports.

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Studies show that men are more likely to open up about the same holistic challenges that women do when it’s a group of only men who do the commiserating. M Powerment is kind of like a cancer fraternity, to collectively lift the life and spirits of any man affected by cancer.

What M Powerment offers that’s different from your average support organization is that we don’t sit around and drown our collective sorrows in our beers. Instead of asking “why me?”, we challenge men to ask “how” through several targeted workshops. "How can I move past this disease?" "How can I take what I’ve learned to lead an awesome life in survivorship?" "How can I make my and my family’s life better as a result of such loss and change of identity?"

All this looks reasonable on paper, but in real time, getting men to seek outside resources is tough. The stigma of being vulnerable and the perception of weakness feels like rough sandpaper to the ego; applying another coat of wax as a buffer feels like a safer choice instead.

In time, we believe that a grassroots effort to bring men together, and offer these resources, will help change the way men think about their disease. Talking about cancer is not a death sentence, but rather a vehicle to move past a significant and challenging part of life.

Hear more from Dan Dean during his keynote speech at the Annual Young Adult Wellness Retreat on Saturday, April 8.