A friend of mine started dating a man six months after he was diagnosed with cancer. At the start of their relationship, he was open about his health issues. And then cancer showed up stronger, and he walled himself off.
“He won’t let me give him any hands-on care,” my friend said. “And he doesn’t want me to be there emotionally for him.”
The couple split a few months later because the guy wasn’t willing to let my friend into his pain. Which means he turned away an amazing gift of love and support.
When my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer, the treatment of choice was hormone therapy, designed to kill testosterone. Which meant he would be going through menopause. Hot flashes, softened muscles, emotional ups and downs.
“I think it’s great we’re going through menopause together,” I said, probably a little too perky.
He didn’t find that humorous.
He once cried in front of his female boss. And another time while meeting with our insurance agent. Both incidents were humiliating for my strong, steady husband.
Add to that the most devastating side effect — loss of libido — and you can see how his maleness was being threatened.
Gary withdrew. He simply shut down his words and affections.
Paired with tight finances from his earlier unemployment and the care for my live-in mother slipping into dementia, it was a hard, heavy, bleak season.
When my brother offered to fly Mom to Florida for a visit, for the first time in the long months since his diagnosis, Gary and I were free to talk in the public places of our home.
More than once, as I started dinner after work, he walked in the front door, headed into the kitchen, and began a conversation that couldn’t wait.
“Men tend to measure their level of success by their jobs, possessions, and sexual performance,” he explained. Men are so shallow. Sigh.
This invited me to voice my thoughts over the loss of affection. “A woman wants to be pursued by the man she loves, which involves a dozen thoughtful little things.” (Understanding how women are designed can be quite confusing to men.) “Suggest a date out. Bring me hot tea. Hold me for no particular reason other than you love to hold me.”
So what keeps men from opening up to the people they love? Based on my experience, and speaking in generalities, here are 4 insights:
1. It’s not always easy for men to express their feelings.
It wasn’t just the disease, but also the fall-out that left Gary distressed. Among other things, he worried about who would want to employ someone with terminal cancer; he worried about how I would survive financially after he died.
His emotions ran from fearfulness, to depression, to discouragement, to hopefulness … to hopelessness. In time, Gary admitted the more he talked about cancer and its domino effect, the easier it became.
2. Men don’t do vulnerability well.
“When a man starts to lose his sexual desire, it’s distressing,” Gary explained in one of our kitchen conversations. “And it’s awkward to discuss it with your wife.”
Saying words like these out loud leaves a man vulnerable; it’s easier to keep it in. But it was clarifying for me to know what was going on in my husband’s head. And it helped distribute the weight he was bearing alone; this was something I could help him carry.
3. Men fear losing the people they love.
“You might not want to care for me if I become a burden,” Gary said in one conversation. “I need your heart to belong to me until the end.”
I cried. This was the man who loved and cared for me and our children, who kept me laughing all these years. I was all in – for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. How beneficial for the wife or girlfriend to know what the man is feeling so she can reassure him — in more ways than one — of her love.
4. Men have their own definition of success. (An incorrect definition, but still … )
Gary sent email one time to avoid a discussion that might produce tears: “It seems to bother me more when I see successful people and they talk about their jobs, houses and vacations. It’s not that I want what they have. It just causes me to feel that I’ve failed. And it’s feeling I have brought you down with me.”
His words fractured my heart. None of our recent setbacks were a result of anything Gary had done or not done.
This thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Gary was a highly successful man, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Now that I knew what was going on in his head, I could help him combat these fears that were aggravated by side effects of cancer treatment.
Gary and I made a new commitment to openness. We held each other more frequently, established a standing Friday date night, and he redoubled his efforts at romantic attention.
As for my heart, it wasn’t going anywhere.
In 2004, Marlys’ husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer and given two years to live. The couple established a non-profit — Cancer Adventures — and presented at a variety of venues across the country including the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, sharing what they were doing to live well with terminal cancer. During that time, Marlys also wrote a book, Cancer Adventures: Turning Loss into Triumph, featuring 28 cancer heroes who had established purpose and meaning, and found a way to give back.
Gary lived 10 good quality years with terminal cancer, much longer than the experts predicted. After he died in November 2014, Marlys took an early retirement from the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, Oregon, where she served as Survivorship Coordinator.
She is in the process of procuring a literary agent for her newest book, a memoir highlighting the lessons cancer taught them about living and dying well. While her story is one of setbacks, Marlys knows she has a greater purpose in life — a passion for showing people how to navigate life’s challenges, tenaciously and with heart wide open.
Follow Marlys on her website Cancer Adventures.
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