A diagnosis of cancer can affect one's work identity — especially if you see yourself as a provider, protector and moving-up-the-ladder kind of guy.
Even if you aren't the sole breadwinner in a family — and even if you’re single, with no dependents — the diagnosis and dealing with it can stir up feelings of inadequacy, according to mental health experts.
Men, Cancer & Work: What the Experts Say
“Men do define themselves by their work,” says Matthew J. Loscalzo, LCSW, a therapist at the City of Hope Cancer Center, Duarte, CA.
“Most men really identify with their work role as a core part of their identity,” agrees Malcolm Schultz, JD, MFT, a clinical supervisor at Cancer Support Community, Benjamin Center in Los Angeles, who facilitates support groups for men with cancer.
For men diagnosed with cancer, two questions often pop up when they consider their often reduced income and its effect on family, says Bill Goeren, LCSW, director of clinical services at CancerCare. They ask: “Have I disappointed? Have I failed?”
The loss of identity many men experience when dealing with cancer, Goeren says, is similar to that experienced when a man retires. However, the loss during a cancer diagnosis can be more difficult, because it is unexpected.
Men with cancer tend to become more depressed than women with cancer, according to Tetyana Pudrovska, PhD, a researcher at the Population Research Institute, Penn State. That, of course, can affect work performance and recovery. In her words: “Cancer poses a threat to the masculine identity because it entails lack of control over one's body and other consequences incompatible with traditional masculinity.”
Here, three case histories of men in different circumstances coping with cancer, the issues they faced on the job, and how they coped.
Besides Loscalzo, Goeren, Pudrovska and Schultz, our experts include cancer patients.
Issue: Dropping the Ball
Bill, an attorney, with a traditional marriage and a stay-at-home wife was raising four young children. With his excellent income, they were accustomed to a certain level of financial security.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. Though he recovered enough to work three days a week, he was used to working five-plus very long days. While earning much less, his thinking was foggy due to the chemo and his wife was not understanding. Instead of being happy he was more present in the home, she was stressed out by their changing lifestyle due to his reduced income.
At work, he noticed those he mentored were now treating him differently. He felt as if he had lost his position of respect and power. He felt abandoned and used.
How he coped: With help from his counselor, Bill gradually realized his work expectations — returning to his long hours and full time work — were not realistic, at least not for the time being. At home, he learned to both support his wife and confront her about being unrealistic. For him, this included telling her they must work as a team, both to get him back to work and to raise their kids.
When he examined the lack of respect he was experiencing from coworkers, he realized some resented having to carry the load left when his work hours declined. By acknowledging their resentment, talking to them and expressing that he felt badly about it, they were better able to understand his situation and were thus less resentful.
He also provided hi coworkers and boss an estimated timeline of when he might be up to full speed, so they could adjust their schedules accordingly. Though it can take some time and introspection, understanding ways to recast oneself at work after cancer can make the transition back to work much smoother.
Other strategies: For high-powered types, a major threat is having to stay home or slow down. Within reason, you may opt to try to gradually increase the pace as your health allows. Consider taking a break midday for a nap, for instance, instead of barreling through, and then finishing the day's work once you are more refreshed.
Issues: Not Feeling Needed, Holding onto ‘Normal’
Blair, a well-respected cardiologist and university professor, learned in 2004 that he had kidney cancer that had spread. He had surgery soon after his diagnosis.
Six weeks later, he returned to work.
“[My] patients were asking, ‘What are you doing?’” he says.
He recognizes now that he was trying to get everything back to normal. And that meant, among other things, feeling needed by his patients.
His hope, and that of many other cancer patients, is that everything would return to the way it was before.
It won't, he discovered, despite being cancer-free.
“It destroys the myth of invulnerability that you carry around,” he says of cancer.
How he coped: Before letting go of this idea, Blair says he became depressed, angry and bitter.
Slowly, he made the transition to what many call the “new normal.” He explains: “I can only count on today. Cancer changes your perception of who you are.”
For him, that meant paying even more attention to his patients. “I am more interested in making people feel better instead of meeting goals set by the administration,” he says.
He came to realize, he says, that he is “more than just my job” even though the job is clearly important to him. Having a healthy mindset can be integral to readjusting to a new approach.
Also critical, he says, is the ongoing presence of the Jewish community, where he and his wife, who also has been diagnosed with cancer, obtained support. He now feels strongly about giving back and does so often.
Other strategies: Being screened for depression is wise, as research shows men with cancer are at higher risk than women. Another way to get help managing the “new normal” and its impact on your psyche and confidence is to join an in-person or virtual support group led by a licensed clinical social worker or run by a reputable cancer organization.
Issue: Missing the Structure of a Job
Larry, 58, had worked at a government agency for 23 years when he found out he had prostate cancer.
He and his wife had both worked for many years and knew they would be OK financially.
He first dealt with the issue of treatment choice and after much debate, he chose surgery.
Then came a surprising issue: the lack of structure in his day.
“This was the first time I had that much unstructured time,” he says. His doctor advised six weeks off from work to recover.
He found himself antsy at the start of his day.
How he coped: Thinking about his long-held wish to be creative in photography, he picked up his camera and walked around the city. As his energy allowed, he photographed whatever looked interesting.
“I created a new structure,” he says.
This inspired a change of plans. Prior to his diagnosis, he had planned to retire in a few years, however, his reignited love of photography made him more eager. Exploring alternative careers that provide meaning can be a helpful step in the process.
He figures it will be just two to four years before he is snapping pictures part time, or maybe full time.
Other strategies: Career counseling can aid in the decision of returning part time, full time, or transition to another career.