Today’s options for support groups are as diverse as the members participating. Some support groups are formal and focus on education, while others are informal and social. Some groups are composed only of people with a certain type of cancer or only caregivers, but another group may include spouses, family members or friends. And while many groups aren’t gendered, more and more men are seeking support spaces created specifically for them.
According to Dr. Allison Forti, associate teaching professor at the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and group facilitator for Cone Health Cancer Center in Greensboro, S.C., men may prefer cancer support groups specifically for men because it feels safer and more comfortable—and thus, more helpful.
“Being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment can create a sense of vulnerability, anxiety, sadness and uncertainty,” Forti says. “This is hard for anyone, but for men socialized to avoid seeking help or raised in a culture that taught them the expression of pain is a sign of weakness, it can be especially isolating. These men are seeking empathy and understanding from someone who knows what it’s like to be the husband, father [or] son.”
In a mixed-gender group, men may hold back genuine thoughts and feelings to maintain the social expectation of demonstrating strength, competence and certainty. Additionally, cancer treatment and post-treatment sometimes cause side effects that are unpleasant, embarrassing or sensitive. Discussing them with only men present may feel more comfortable.
When Forti first started facilitating cancer groups, most of the participants were women; however, more recently, men are seeking support. “I think this has to do with evolving views on help-seeking for men, greater outreach to male cancer patients and attempts to destigmatize support services,” Forti says.
Groups for men offer a greater sense of freedom and privacy. Men may feel more comfortable discussing marital concerns, sexual side effects of treatment and negative feelings based in gender differences with only males present.
“I’ve noticed that participants in coed groups avoid discussing intimate topics, preferring to discuss more universal concerns related to cancer such as existential issues, questions about treatment, coping with non-sexual related side effects and general relational concerns,” Forti says.
Experts agree that men should consider the location and accessibility of support groups, which are commonly offered in a cancer center, at a cancer center-sponsored off-site location or through places of worship.
“Men should consider whether they prefer a specific type of cancer support group or a mixed diagnosis group,” Forti says. “Some cancer centers offer cancer-specific groups. Though universal concerns occur for cancer patients, some concerns are limited to a specific type of cancer.”
Men should also consider their medical prognosis. Do they want to be in a group with other men who will complete treatment and likely not experience recurrence or do they prefer a group with men who will always be in treatment or living with cancer?
“Medical prognosis makes a significant difference in the topics of discussion,” Forti says. “It changes the focus of conversation and what feels supportive.”
Billy Mayo is not only a cancer survivor but also one of the leaders of the men’s group at Canopy Survivorship Center with Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center in Shenandoah, Texas.
“We have had a small core group of five to seven men on a regular basis,” he says. “We try to provide the benefit of our cancer experiences so they can realize that they are not alone. Many of us have very similar paths, both as cancer patients and as caregivers, and these experiences hopefully can provide a bit of comfort and guidance.”
According to Katie Brown, OPN-CG, senior vice president of survivorship and support at the LUNGevity Foundation, men don’t have to suffer through their lung cancer journey alone. Connecting with others experiencing the same diagnosis can alleviate feelings of stress and isolation.
Edward Cutler is a lung cancer survivor and participant in one of the men’s support groups offered by the LUNGevity Foundation. Cutler was looking for a support group that would be conducive for men to talk with each other about their individual medical situations and how their cancer diagnosis and treatment affected their marital and family relationships.
“I first looked to my comprehensive cancer center for leads on male support groups, but had no success there. I accidentally came upon the group Man Up To Cancer (MUTC), which has a website and a private Facebook group, while I was browsing the internet,” Cutler says. “I’ve also participated in the LUNGevity Foundation’s Zoom support groups, which have been helpful to me. Anyone can participate and if you miss one, you can catch up at the next one. I don’t know of any other support groups that do that.”
Cutler has been happy with the ease in which the men of MUTC converse with each other directly or within the group as a whole, both in writing on the Facebook group or during the group’s bi-weekly Zoom meetups.
“Even though we may not have the same cancer, we can be dealing with similar issues and talk about them openly. I have even met one man in person, who had colorectal cancer and who lives within a few miles of me,” says Cutler, who has also served as a LifeLine Support Partner for LUNGevity’s peer-to-peer program as a mentor to three different men, two of whom he has been able to maintain occasional contact with.
“Through this program, I believe my story provided hope to the men I supported, who were in the beginning of their journeys with lung cancer. I was also able to firmly establish with them that getting a second opinion before beginning a treatment program was a must,” Cutler says.
Robert Brooks, a multiple myeloma cancer survivor, was looking for a caring group of positive men that had similar experiences they could share—one that was led by a deeply knowledgeable practitioner who embodied multicultural perspectives by helping the men understand each journey.
“I wasn’t certain that I could join a group long term, so I imagined a setting where respect was always shown towards each other’s feelings and concerns,” Brooks says. “The Karmanos Men’s Support Group is now like a family to me that meets all my criteria.”
The Karmanos Men’s Support Group offered by the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Mich., meets twice a month in person and occasionally over Zoom. The men discuss how cancer affects their mind, body and spirit. They share their experiences with cancer, from diagnosis through managing treatments and their short- and long-term side effects.
“They talk about their spouses and support persons and how they couldn’t have gotten through this without them. They discuss how important it is to maintain their sense of independence,” says Kathleen Hardy, LMSW, oncology social worker at Karmanos Cancer Institute.
“They share about all the loss cancer has brought into their lives: loss of health as they knew it; loss of control and uncertainty about the future; loss of employment and income; and their role in the family and the community,” she continues. ”They support each other with humor and hope. They call themselves ‘The Outliers,’ as they believe they have done far better than they would have imagined when diagnosed.”
Hardy says the camaraderie in the group is important. They meet for coffee before group gatherings and go on weekend cancer retreats, golf outings and fly-fishing trips together. They encourage their partners to join the spouses/significant others group. And they pick each other up for group meetings when needed.
“Some men may not want to talk about cancer in other settings, but this group provides them support and the ability to connect socially with each other both inside and outside of our regular meetings,” Hardy says.
Brooks stresses that the group meetings keep him abreast of resources for his specific cancer and allow him to share his experiences to help others in their journeys.
“I’ve found the camaraderie and caring amongst the men is contagious,” Brooks says. He recommends men with cancer to be open-minded and share their journey, as they may be surprised how uplifting and informative each session can be.
“Being in a caring group is non-judgmental, so treat it that way. Groups provide an opportunity to discuss things you might be uncomfortable discussing with others—even your oncologist,” Brooks says. “Listen to the advice coming from your group participants as it can keep you on your pathway to healthy living.”