Men, cancer and emotions

Monday 21 May 2018

This month’s blog has been prompted by a family member’s recent cancer diagnosis. With one in two of us predicted to have a cancer diagnosis at some point, then it’s not surprising that we all have a personal contact with cancer. 

What has been interesting (from a personal perspective) is witnessing the male emotional response to a cancer diagnosis, first hand. It echoes the responses and behaviours my colleagues and I see, and help with, on a daily basis – and is still not always  acknowledged or understood.

Put simply, most of us women want to talk about our emotions, whilst men don’t. That is over simplification, I realise, and an area of huge debate, but I thought I’d have a look at how men perhaps deal with and process a big emotional topic such as cancer.

Research about men, cancer and emotions

Men do tend to show their emotions in a different way to women, but it doesn’t mean they feel things any less powerfully.  Recent research on men diagnosed with prostate cancer, in the first three months post diagnosis, has demonstrated that ‘men silenced distress because they believed it was expected of them’.

The authors’ conclusion notes that ‘maintaining silence allowed men to protect their strong and stoic self-image. This stereotype, of the strong and stoic man, prevented men from expressing their feelings of distress and from seeking support from family and friends and health professionals.’ (Responding to a diagnosis of localized prostate cancer: men’s experiences of normal distress during the first 3 post diagnostic months (Wall, D.P et al, 2013) cited by

This is backed up by a study from New Zealand, which showed that men silenced distress because it is expected of them. Dr Heron-Spiers (Medical Press, 2015) found that men with cancer cope by being active and practical, and avoiding self-pity. However they generally find it harder to acknowledge and express feelings and fears about cancer and its implications, which included dying.  The men she studied used tactics such as humour, down playing the subject, and blocking it out, to deal with their cancer. She talks about the three masculine norms of ‘strong, silent and invulnerable’, and how these tactics prevent accessing support.

Unfortunately, society seems to dictate that men cannot show a vulnerable side, and that ‘big boys don’t cry’. I read today about four universal emotions, happiness, sadness, anger and fear.  Happiness is considered acceptable…we can all show we are feeling this strong emotion. However, men in particular, are less encouraged to show fear and sadness.

How cancer affects men emotionally

Pent up emotion can lead to stress, sleeplessness, constant tiredness and irritability. (Mensline Australia). This tends to lead to behaviours which we may all recognise:-

  •  Withdrawing from family and friends
  •  Working longer hours
  • Spending more time away from home
  • Consuming more alcohol, or recreational drugs
  • Behaving recklessly and/or violently

What you can do

If you identify this in yourself, or males affected by cancer around you, it could be helpful to think about accessing additional support – talking to someone about what is going on, and recognising what might be triggering these non-coping strategies.

Maybe a chat to a friend or family member you can trust, or talking through how you’re feeling with your GP, specialist nurse or here at Maggie’s (in either one of our physical centres, or here online). There are practical courses and workshops, as well one to one support, available, and it's not seen as unmacho to ask about help in addressing emotions.

Support groups, both online and face to face can help too, where men can address their issues in a way they feel comfortable with. I've been looking at men’s cancer forums which generally show incredible emotional depth but blended in with humour, and much factual information.  (I think men cope by being practical, and focused - maybe going back to their ‘hunter/gatherer’ days.)

Meanwhile, as a woman trying to help a family member, I've learned some useful lessons. The men in our lives may not necessarily want to, or be able to react or talk about cancer related matters in the open way we'd expect. It doesn't mean that they haven't heard the information, or understood it...but are possibly processing it all, and compartmentalising it, to be discussed when they are ready.

I would welcome your comments and views on this, as it is a subject not always talked about. What do you men think?

Warm wishes


Updated July 2020


The emotional impact         Prostate Cancer UK

Feelings and cancer      National Cancer Institute

Emotional health of men with cancer often unaddressed (February 18, 2015, Massey University)    - Medical Press

Responding to a diagnosis of localized prostate cancer: men's experiences of normal distress during the first 3 postdiagnostic months.  (Wall DP1, Kristjanson LJ, Fisher C, Boldy D, Kendall GE)     Cancer Nursing (2013, Nov/Dec) - PubMed

Emotional wellbeing      Mensline Australia

Managing emotions   Maggie's 

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