Men can be less forthcoming than women when it comes to discussing their emotions around health issues – and it’s no surprise. Girls grow up being taught to express how they feel, while boys can often bottle it up, encouraged to be “strong”. One of the issues men struggle to talk about is their feelings around cancer – whether that’s their own diagnosis or a person they care for.
And it’s something Macmillan Cancer Support has noticed: in 2018, around 20,000 men contacted the charity, compared to around 41,000 women. And men were 29% less likely to call about emotional support compared to women.
A previous survey by the charity suggested millions of men don’t know how to talk about cancer symptoms, either – with this particularly being the case among men working in ‘masculine’ sectors, like building and construction.
Around 500 men are diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK, so this begins to paint a picture of just how many men may be suffering in silence. The charity, which recently launched a ‘Lets Talk About What You Can’t Say’ campaign, wants – and urges – men to speak out.
Kiwi Patel, 37, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia in September 2012 after collapsing at work, says it took a while to open up about his diagnosis – and when he did, both times it was to a stranger.
Initially when he was told he had cancer, his attitude was surprisingly positive.
“Ok, how do we beat it?” were his first words, he says, while his ex-wife burst into tears beside him. It was only in the aftermath that he found himself confronting the emotions that were building up inside of him.
Three days after his diagnosis, Patel sat down with a nurse and asked her why cancer had happened to him. “It was after everyone had gone and she came over to ask how I was feeling,” he tells me on the phone. “It was quite an emotional day and I just had to get it out eventually. I cried my eyes out, I was so angry with the world. It’s a really hard feeling – you’re angry at the world but you know there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Patel says it was far easier to tell someone he didn’t know how he was feeling, rather than friends or family. “My parents were in their mid-60s at the time,” he says. “And when you’re that age, you feel like it should be you looking after your parents.”
Throughout treatment, he kept his emotions close to his chest – and when he found himself needing to open up again, he spoke to a nurse through the Macmillan Support Line after seeing the number on a letter they sent him.
His anger and frustration at his diagnosis was building up. “I just wanted to rant,” he says. “This lady listened to me ranting for 45 minutes. I was f-ing and blinding saying how shit everything was.”
Choosing to speak to a stranger on the phone had nothing to do with being “macho”, Patel says. “I had to find my own strength for my parents, my ex-wife, my friends, my now-partner, but equally I needed somebody to lend me strength and listen to me – and that’s what the nurse did.”
This pattern is the same for many men going through a cancer diagnosis, says Allan Harper-Reid, a senior cancer information nurse specialist at Macmillan. When men call the support line, some want to remain anonymous so they can discuss things they haven’t felt able to talk about before, he says. “We often find, at the end of a call, men feel relieved they have found a safe space to talk.”
Living with or being affected by a long-term condition like cancer can increase a person’s risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, according to the Mental Health Foundation – so feeling able to speak about it couldn’t be more important.
This is something Chris Willis-Baugh, 31, has grown to understand. His wife Millie, 30, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in January this year. It wasn’t a complete shock to the couple – tests in early December highlighted the probability of cancer – but it was still a devastating blow.
Willis-Baugh didn’t find it hard talking about the diagnosis itself, but he did struggle with the whirlwind of emotions in the aftermath: fear, anger, despair, sadness, helplessness. “The woman I planned to spend my life with and married only six months earlier had just been diagnosed with cancer – one that, in my limited knowledge at the time, had a poor survival rate,” he tells me, “and it just wasn’t something we’d even thought about.”
In a panic, he turned to social media for advice on how to look after Millie during her chemo – but he found nothing. “The general day-to-day of blokes just connecting and sharing advice seemed non-existent,” he says. “I thought it was ridiculous that I was learning things through trial and error and there wasn’t really a vehicle to share those tips with other husbands and vice versa.”
He wanted to be brave, so he set up @mywifehascancer on Instagram in February, a space where he could open up about how he was coping. It’s been a vehicle that has encouraged him to discuss his own emotions – and he’s received messages from husbands also opening up to him.
Through this support network, he’s realised a lot of other men struggle with speaking about the strain cancer can have on them as carers. “While men are socially geared to be the ‘protector’ or ‘provider’, the label of ‘carer’ is not something that a lot of men would be comfortable with – which is a load of bollocks,” he says. “Ultimately, I swore to be with Millie come rain or shine and it’s a team effort between us to get through this together. She’d be exactly the same if the roles were reversed, so why shouldn’t I be?”
For both men, being able to talk about their experience was a pivotal moment in dealing with the aftermath of their diagnosis – and this is a message they want to share with other men.
Patel – who is still having treatment but gets to live a relatively “normal” life – is writing a book about his journey. He went through a divorce and suffered six bereavements in the space of seven months after his diagnosis – so he knows more than ever how important it is to talk. The taboo about men being seen as weak for speaking up is “crap”, he says. “When we go through this stuff in life, whether you’re male or female, we’re all humans – we all breathe, eat, sleep, and we all go through ups and downs.”
Offering advice to those in similar situations to Patel and Willis-Baugh, a spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation says while men often struggle to talk about their feelings, this can be doubly so when they are under pressure and feel a risk to the expected role as men, or feel a need to be strong for others in their lives.
“However you feel – hopeful, scared, resolved, embarrassed – is how you feel, and it is ok to discuss these feelings,” they say. “It is a strength to talk about these issues and not a weakness.”
If you are struggling, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/letstalk or call Macmillan’s Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00.