For both working men and working women, a diagnosis of cancer can profoundly affect their identity. But for some men, the old societal perceptions of the man being the breadwinner are tough to shake, making the circumstances even more challenging. According to mental health experts, cancer can stir up complicated emotions and feelings of inadequacy for certain men, regardless of whether they’re married or single, have children, and/or are financially supporting dependents.
“Most men really identify with their work role as a core part of their identity,” says 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 who are diagnosed and going through treatment, two questions often pop up when they consider their often-reduced work/income and its effect on family, says Bill Goeren, LCSW, director of clinical services at CancerCare. They ask: “Have I disappointed? Have I failed?”
According to Tetyana Pudrovska, PhD, a researcher at the Population Research Institute, Penn State, men with cancer tend to become more depressed than women with cancer. 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.
Issue: Dropping the Ball
Bill, an attorney, had a traditional marriage, wherein his wife was a stay-at-home mom, and four young children. He had a great salary, and they were accustomed to a certain level of financial security.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. Although he recovered enough to work three days a week, he had been used to working five-plus very long days. Fewer hours meant a reduced income. Changes to their financial stability, coupled with the effects of chemo brain on Bill, caused strain on his marriage and home life.
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 — almost as though he had been abandoned on some level — which was upsetting.
How he coped: With help from his counselor, Bill gradually realized his work expectations — i.e., returning to his full-time schedule and long hours — were not realistic, at least not for the time being. At home, he learned to both support his wife and approach her about establishing realistic expectations. For him, this included telling her they must work together as a team to both get him back on the job and raise their kids.
When he examined the lack of respect he was experiencing from coworkers, he realized some resented having to pick up the slack when his work hours declined. By acknowledging their resentment and explaining that he felt badly for the position his own circumstances put them in, they were more empathetic to his situation.
He also found that providing his coworkers and boss with an estimated timeline of when he might be up to full speed helped them feel more informed and enabled them to 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 those who are very fast paced, the concept of having to stay home or slow down can feel threatening. One way to address this is to gradually increase your pace as your health allows. Consider taking a break midday for a nap, for instance, and then finishing the day’s work once you are more refreshed.
Issue: Holding onto “Normal”
Blair, a well-respected cardiologist and university professor, was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer. He underwent surgery and returned to work six weeks later.
“[My] patients were asking, ‘What are you doing?’” he says.
He recognizes now that he was trying to get everything back to normal. And for him that meant 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 the diagnosis.
Despite being cancer-free, he soon realized that wouldn’t be the case.
“[Cancer] destroys the myth of invulnerability that you carry around,” he says.
How he coped: Blair says he became depressed, angry and bitter.
Slowly, he made the transition to what many call the “new normal.” 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 that he is “more than just [his] job” even though the job is clearly important to him. Having a healthy mindset can be integral to readjusting to a new approach.
As Blair explains it: “I can only count on today. Cancer changes your perception of who you are.”
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, acknowledging the importance of a strong support system.
Other strategies: One 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 psychologist or clinical social worker or run by a reputable cancer organization. You might also consider being screened for depression, given that research indicates men with cancer are at a higher risk for depression than are women with the disease.
Issue: Missing the Structure of a Job
At age 58, Larry, who had worked at a government agency for 23 years, learned he had prostate cancer. Financial security was not of great concern, since he and his wife had both worked for many years.
After much debate about treatment choices, he decided to undergo surgery.
Then came an issue he had not anticipated: the lack of structure in his day. His doctor advised that he take six weeks off from work to recover. “This was the first time I had that much unstructured time,” he says
He found himself antsy at the start of his day.
How he coped: Thinking about his long-held wish to be more creative through 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, Larry was on track to retire in a few years; however, his newly reignited love of photography made him more eager to stay active and engaged. He thinks that before long he’ll be snapping pictures part-time — or maybe even full-time.
Other strategies: Talking to a career counselor can help when deciding whether to return to work part-time, full-time or not at all (if that’s an option) post-treatment — or whether to transition to another career entirely. Exploring alternative careers that provide meaning can be a helpful step in the process.