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Finding community: The Men's Support Network

Author: Nancy Christie

“I needed another resource, another outlet, someone to speak to.”

That need was what inspired Thomas “TJ” Jones to join the Men’s Support Network (MSN) at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after learning that the prostate cancer for which he had been previously treated had recurred. “I knew it was a great concept—to sit down with people who are going through what you are going through and share your feelings, your fears and your concerns and just talk in a safe space,” TJ says.

But for many men, the idea of “sharing” doesn’t come easily, especially when dealing with their health, and, specifically, with a cancer diagnosis, treatment and related issues. More often than not, men are likely to adopt a “strong and silent” attitude, not comfortable with the idea of sharing their emotions or concerns or admitting their physical vulnerability.

Reverend Wendell Scanterbury, Supervisor of Pastoral Care at CTCA® in Philadelphia, says that “men tend to normalize, mask or tolerate symptoms or emotions for a longer period than women,” who generally act more quickly to seek care when they experience an unusual symptom. The same trend applies when it comes to emotional needs in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Rev. Scanterbury says: “The typical male response is, ‘I’m just fine; I don’t need anything.’” This response, the result of gender- role and social conditioning, can be detrimental to men’s health, as it masks “the real needs of the soul for finding meaning in the battle with cancer,” he says.

A call to action

It was the desire to address the unique needs of men facing a cancer diagnosis that prompted the creation of a men-only support group at CTCA in Philadelphia. Rev. Scanterbury says, “There were two signal events that led to the founding of a support network for men: One of our employees, Lewis Williams, found himself encouraging a male caregiver who was overwhelmed and realized that there was no support resource in place for our male population; subsequently, one of our patients, Kevin Colquitt, made the same observation from his own experience and brought it to our attention, along with a proposal and framework for launching a formal support network.”

Kevin, who was undergoing treatment at CTCA for both prostate and lung cancer, says that he saw a clear need among male patients and caregivers for support. “The thought was that men were suffering in silence and needed a means of expression to voice their concerns while dealing with cancer,” Kevin explains. “As men we are not expressive of our thoughts and feelings while dealing with challenges.”

Recognizing the need among men and the benefit that a support network could provide, several male staff at the hospital, who had themselves been touched by cancer, agreed to implement and co-facilitate the MSN. The results are a twice-monthly meeting of the support group in Philadelphia; a men’s group that meets weekly at CTCA in Zion, Illinois; and Prostate Cancer Support Groups hosted at CTCA hospitals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Newnan, Georgia. The MSN meetings are available not only to those who attend in person; patients who cannot make it to the CTCA campus can call in to participate. “They consistently call in on the conference line from home or work just to participate and stay connected,” Rev. Scanterbury says. “That’s pretty encouraging!”

Connection and Community

TJ is one of those who takes advantage of the call-in option. “Wendell puts us on speaker so we can talk to the group, and the group can talk to us—it’s a great option,” he says enthusiastically. “In the group you can talk and give advice and get advice back.” The opportunity to share with other men is unique, TJ says: “Men have a history of not really talking—we have been trained by society to not share emotion. We don’t want to appear weak. I have male family and friends, but I don’t share my health issues with them.” But the MSN, he says, provides a safe space for being open: “I can share with the group because the group knows—they are going through what I am going through.”

Time spent sharing their concerns and offering support helps men create new bonds and become more comfortable expressing their thoughts, Rev. Scanterbury says. “We have found that there is a greater level of comfort for men as they communicate with other men who share their experience in some way. It helps to erode the sense that I am alone in this, and, further, it helps to identify others who they can connect with or talk to who ‘get it.’”

While there is usually a specific topic for discussion that was circulated to the group in advance, each meeting of the MSN provides men the opportunity to share their story and raise whatever issues or challenges they might be facing, says Rev. Scanterbury. “Invariably, men talk about their experiences relative to whatever is brought up, receive affirmation and encouragement from other men and listen to how others experienced or dealt with their own situations and those of loved ones.”

The sense of community created by the hourlong meetings is palpable at each session, Rev. Scanterbury says, and survives beyond the meeting: “By the time we’re through, we’re giving man-hugs and filling out buddy cards to exchange contact information.”

The comfort of confidentiality

Jack* joined the MSN while undergoing radiation treatments for prostate cancer at CTCA in Philadelphia. As someone who refers to himself as “a very private person who protects my personal life,” Jack found that his participation in the group has allowed him to incrementally break down barriers and share concerns. “The group helped me to acknowledge my condition instead of denying it and increased my motivation to perform behaviors that were conducive to stabilizing or remediating my condition,” he says.

The promise of confidentiality—a hallmark of the group—is critical for patients who may have a difficult time sharing their emotions. Each meeting of the MSN begins with a review of the group’s mission, vision and charter, which emphasizes the confidentiality of the information shared during the meetings. “Our group is built on trust, without obligation, to provide an open door where men with cancer-related conditions can express their views, thoughts and per personal-life situations—all confidentially,” Jack says.

TJ adds that the respect the group has for one another’s privacy is key: “You don’t have to be afraid because whatever you say stays within the group and doesn’t go any farther.”

For those not ready to drop their guard at the first few meetings, Jack says just sharing what you’re comfortable with and moving slowly is just fine: “You have to think of how far you are willing to go,” he says. “Ask yourself, What is my comfort zone? and then, as you become more comfortable, you can stretch that elastic band out a little further.” The more you participate, he adds, “the more you find out about yourself and your journey. At some point you will realize you don’t have to take this journey alone. There are others blazing down this same path.”

A welcome resource

While not all men—or women, for that matter—will be comfortable sharing their concerns with a group, the benefits to those who do participate can be considerable. “Growth is a challenge that we often resist, and men are the most resistant,” Kevin says. “The challenge is to come to the meetings and be part of this growth and movement—to come, to grow and to learn while supporting others in their fight with cancer.”

Ultimately, the MSN illustrates the axiom that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As TJ points out, the healing bond is powerful and long-lasting: “Everyone is important to the group, and we all are a powerful force for each. We can always tap into that resource.”

*Patient’s name changed at his request to ensure privacy.

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