4 insights into reticent men and cancer

A friend of mine started dating a man six months after he was diagnosed with cancer. At the start of their relationship, he was open about his health issues. And then cancer showed up stronger, and he walled himself off.


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“He won’t let me give him any hands-on care,” my friend said. “And he doesn’t want me to be there emotionally for him.”

The couple split a few months later because the guy wasn’t willing to let my friend into his pain. Which means he turned away an amazing gift of love and support.

When my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer, the treatment of choice was hormone therapy, designed to kill testosterone. Which meant he would be going through menopause. Hot flashes, softened muscles, emotional ups and downs.

“I think it’s great we’re going through menopause together,” I said, probably a little too perky.

He didn’t find that humorous.

He once cried in front of his female boss. And another time while meeting with our insurance agent. Both incidents were humiliating for my strong, steady husband.

Add to that the most devastating side effect — loss of libido — and you can see how his maleness was being threatened.

Gary withdrew. He simply shut down his words and affections.

Paired with tight finances from his earlier unemployment and the care for my live-in mother slipping into dementia, it was a hard, heavy, bleak season.

When my brother offered to fly Mom to Florida for a visit, for the first time in the long months since his diagnosis, Gary and I were free to talk in the public places of our home.

More than once, as I started dinner after work, he walked in the front door, headed into the kitchen, and began a conversation that couldn’t wait.

“Men tend to measure their level of success by their jobs, possessions, and sexual performance,” he explained. Men are so shallow. Sigh.

This invited me to voice my thoughts over the loss of affection. “A woman wants to be pursued by the man she loves, which involves a dozen thoughtful little things.” (Understanding how women are designed can be quite confusing to men.) “Suggest a date out. Bring me hot tea. Hold me for no particular reason other than you love to hold me.”

So what keeps men from opening up to the people they love? Based on my experience — and speaking in generalities — here are 4 insights:

1. It’s not always easy for men to express feelings.

It wasn’t just the disease, but also the fall-out that left Gary distressed. Among other things, he worried about who would want to employ someone with terminal cancer; he worried about how I would survive financially after he died.

His emotions ran from fearfulness, to depression, to discouragement, to hopefulness … to hopelessness. In time, Gary admitted the more he talked about cancer and its domino effect, the easier it became.

2. Men don’t do vulnerability well.

“When a man starts to lose his sexual desire, it’s distressing,” Gary explained in one of our kitchen conversations. “And it’s awkward to discuss it with your wife.”

Saying words like these out loud leaves a man vulnerable; it’s easier to keep it in. But it was clarifying for me to know what was going on in my husband’s head. And it helped distribute the weight he was bearing alone; this was something I could help him carry.

3. Men fear losing the people they love.

“You might not want to care for me if I become a burden,” Gary said in one conversation. “I need your heart to belong to me until the end.”

I cried. This was the man who loved and cared for me and our children, who kept me laughing all these years. I was all in – for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. How beneficial for the wife or girlfriend to know what the man is feeling so she can reassure him. often. of her love.

4. Men have their own definition of success. (An incorrect definition, but still … )

Gary sent email one time to avoid a discussion that might produce tears: “It seems to bother me more when I see successful people and they talk about their jobs, houses and vacations. It’s not that I want what they have. It just causes me to feel that I’ve failed. And it’s feeling I have brought you down with me.”

His words fractured my heart. None of our recent setbacks were a result of anything Gary had done or not done.

This thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Gary was a highly successful man, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Now that I knew what was going on in his head, I could help him combat these fears that were aggravated by side effects of cancer treatment.

We made a new commitment to openness. We held each other more frequently, established a standing Friday date night, and Gary redoubled his efforts at romantic attention.

As for my heart, it wasn’t going anywhere.

P.S. If you found this post helpful, please share, tweet or pin!

* This blog is a condensed version of a chapter in my forthcoming book. Before he died, Gary gave permission to share these personal conversations should they benefit others struggling with similar issues.


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  1. Lovely insights. Some things I had not thought of though I spent years praying for a father figure and his cancer journey. Thank you.

  2. sally slick

    Marlys, again wonderful, touching, true…. Hugs, dear friend…

  3. Kim


    Thanks, this is exactly what I needed to hear.

    All I can say right now through my tears is thank you so much.

    Bless Gary and you for sharing!!

  4. Wendy Archer

    As always, much food for thought. Thank you Marlys.

  5. Nasus

    Marlys, I am overwhelmed, thinking of what your heart was going through to write this precious message! You give so much of yourself in order to help others! I thank God for you and ask Him to continue to guide and to bless you with His wisdom and loving care! Love you! N.

  6. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    Dear Marlys,
    It’s me again… been there, done that, got the T shirt & seriously, it’s the way ‘a man’ might put it when really all that you highlighted will resonate with any man who may well read your blog. They will know that they were afraid, not ready, perhaps just didn’t know how to deal with it. They might show too many emotions and that’s something we men perhaps have to learn and share more, sometimes. I thank you on their and my behalf, you certainly touched a nerve or two and gave us a talking to, but that’s what will help most…. ‘talking and opening up about it’. Personally, going through ‘burn out’ this last year, dealing with it is like it was when I had kidney cancer…. it wasn’t a case of ‘toughing it out’, more like.. ‘I can deal with this’, forgetting so many folks were worried stiff for you/me. Realising what roles each has to play and share, you’ve covered so well. God Bless you… “I wasn’t in tears”, but sometimes it helps. Take care, Barbara & Peter.

    • Thank you, Peter, for sharing these vulnerable thoughts. Do you think part of all this is how man was created? Do you think a man’s general definition of success comes from wanting his wife and family to be proud of him, to have respect for him and his work and what that job can provide for them? Which means there are good qualities entwined with the not-wanting-to-be-vulnerable: a sense of responsibility, good work ethic, the importance of commitment and being a man of his word. Right?

  7. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    Yes, we could discuss the ‘hunter/gatherer’ the ‘sensing/feeling’ etc etc and therein is ‘the individual’ who is vulnerable and complex. You summarised adequately in your reply, I just hope it helps all your readers who may need prompting. It’s quite easy for me to say, “From symptoms of kidney cancer, to treatment process, it took just 9 days for my kidney to be removed”. I was never unwell though I was given only 25% chance of survival. The early diagnosis, treatment and recover is by God’s blessing together with so much close family/friend support. I would appeal to all MEN to take action before it happens to be too late… ‘Just do it’. Must say too… we’ve just been with you in Madras, Oregon (the total eclipse), it was wonderful to feel we were with you and all our good friends in Oregon and across your United States. Sorry, I just had to mention this. God Bless, B & P

    • Yes, Peter … just do it.

      Ah, the eclipse. I was in Portland for a writers conference last week, and didn’t want to drive back over one-lane mountain roads into the maelstrom that was central Oregon with tens of thousands of eclipse visitors. So I drove north to Seattle to spend some time with my son and daughter-in-law. How smart was that?!

  8. M.M.


    Wonderful blog, again. When I went through my bout with cancer, I went through all those self-breaking things you mentioned about your husband. At the time, I was married to a physician who had a great amount of medical insight into my illness, with a great deal of love and support. But that wasn’t enough. I think sometimes in dire situations we don’t listen to our loved ones, we need to receive leadership from someone we don’t know. Fortunately, I sought the services of a therapist who had actually been through the same illness. He was so good, he knew the situation from the inside out, he knew the situation from the outside in (from his counseling patients). I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic, I mean come on, I was career law enforcement, trust did not come easy. I grew to trust J, and grew so much with his counseling therapy. Thank God, my recovery was complete and I was once again healthy in body and mind. I missed very few days of work from my Police Chief’s job which was stressful, especially with my illness. What I learned has made me a more secure person, looking forward and not behind. Thanks!

    • “What I learned has made me a more secure person, looking forward and not behind” – a tough course you probably wouldn’t wish on anyone else, M.M., but lessons you’re probably glad you learned. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    I am able to concur with MM above… not only as a Police Officer at the time of my kidney cancer, but more importantly, when my Barbara was diagnosed with her breast cancer the year later… NOW I KNOW what it is like to feel for that other person, to care, to share and be there for and with them, as they did for me. I do hope and pray this ‘chat’ helps so many to ‘stop lingering’ and ‘do what they aught to do’ straight away. God Bless

  10. Darrell Lake

    Hi Marlys… Once again you have scored an A+ with your thoughts. I often feel you know guys better than we know ourselves. Gary was a one in million. I cannot imagine anyone not loving him. I cannot imagine either going through what he did and being as strong as he was. Pain pills can help with the physical pain but I know of no pill that can help with the emotional pain that has to be overwhelming. A man’s self worth perhaps is his greatest possession. Losing that and he has lost everything. Gary’s ability to deal with such was amazing and to retain his dry sense of humor through it all unbelievable. Thank you Marlys for what you are doing. What a blessing you are to so many. May God continue to bless you in this ministry that He has given you… always

    • Darrell, I’m still amazed – after that first hard year – at how well Gary managed the self-worth issues. Honestly, his next 8.5 years were amazing, even with late-stage disease, until cancer took a sharp left turn. Even that last 1/2 year of his life, though, Gary lived it valiantly, without complaint. He was indeed one in a million. And how lucky was I to belong to him for this short time here on earth! Thank you for your excellent comments.

  11. Truly insightful and inspiring of deep reflection- on so many level.Thank you.

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