Back in the ’70s I considered myself an ardent feminist. I displayed a bumper sticker on the back of my pale green Rambler that said “Sexism is a Social Disease.” Most of my closest friends at that time were women and my two older sisters were great influences on my life. I felt it was unfair and unconscionable that women were denied the same rights and benefits that were afforded men.
As I grew a bit older, I began to observe life from a different, broader perspective. I replaced my bumper sticker with one that read “Sexism Hurts Both Ways.” While still acknowledging the unfair limits our culture placed on women, I became more aware of the oppressive expectations it placed on men and how emotionally and psychologically unhealthy these expectations were. Men were expected to initiate dates, risking rejection and ridicule. Men were socialized to hold feelings inside, to tough things out, to not cry or share or show weakness.
The hazards of being male became particularly poignant last year when I was diagnosed with lung cancer. The news that I was ill hit me like a brick. I was totally unprepared and thoroughly shocked. I did exactly what my physicians advised me not to and immersed myself in research. The literature couldn’t have been more brutally clear: I had a very serious condition and the likelihood of my securing even a term life insurance policy was worse than the Detroit Lions winning a Super Bowl spot.
Limited knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. What the literature failed to mention was the abundant research suggesting that people with positive attitudes, loving relationships, strong support systems, strong faith and a sense of humor live longer than others with the same cancer, age, class, health and socio-economic status.
I was lucky because I had many of those “winning attributes.” But what I learned as a child about how to be a male had not changed. While my family and friends rallied behind me and provided more support, encouragement and love than I could have hoped for, it was difficult to convey the overwhelming changes I was experiencing. I felt that even my closest friends could not understand what I was going through. Every side effect or procedure made me feel more and more alone.
My sense of isolation grew even more intense when I began to respond well to treatment and was no longer “in crisis.” It had been much easier to describe what I was feeling when I was undergoing chemo and actively fighting for my health, when my future was far more uncertain, when every day felt like a gift. It became much harder to share my reality when the pressure was off.
As I expected, and as I had hoped, friends saw my life normalizing and were able to forget for longer periods of time that cancer was still taking an enormous physical and emotional toll. Even now, as my prognosis improves, I’m aware of how complex it is for me to convey this deeply personal and difficult challenge to more than my wife and family.
If you’ve ever had to hold two opposing and contradictory realities in your mind at the same time you have a sense of trying to live with cancer: Did God put into motion the illness that I pray for Him to heal? Can I prepare for the likelihood of a shortened life, as I must, while remaining optimistic that I will survive? Can I feel gratitude and appreciation for every new day even when they’re filled with distressing side effects and fatigue? Can I have faith even when my belief in God is elusive?
Living with cancer requires constantly evolving coping skills. What keeps me hopeful, optimistic and grateful for a day or a month seems to wear out — requiring another plan to replace it. Prayer worked for a while, then silent meditation. After that, it was counseling, then cognitive restructuring, and on and on. And even though my Judaism has been a powerful grounding force, my belief in God and my understanding of how to relate to that power have taken numerous turns. But what remains unwavering is a need to share my feelings with others and to be understood by those to whom I’m closest. At the risk of sounding sexist, I believe that men have a harder time with this than women.
CHAI Circle, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Services funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, has provided women with cancer a wonderful resource to receive support, strength and the connections to grow from their experience and with each other. JFCS wants to explore what men with cancer need in a comparable, albeit somewhat different, service and has initiated a task force to identify our unique needs. If you or a loved one want to find out more, or if you have ideas about what a Jewish men’s cancer resource should look like, contact Shoshana Elkins, JFCS vice president of programs and services, at [email protected] Or feel free to contact me directly at [email protected].
Ray Lederman is is an adult and adolescent psychiatrist, now consulting for government entities on behavioral health care system reform.