The definition of masculinity nowadays has been much broader – men no longer have (though some still expected) to be physically and emotionally strong. It’s more common now to see androgynous fashion, men becoming caretakers of a family, etc. But the word “vulnerability” seems to be one that is still often avoided by everyone, especially men. In fact, opening up about vulnerabilities is actually a strength that not a lot of people, especially men, have been able to master. We had a chance to get in touch with Justin Robertson, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2016, and talk about how he dealt with the shock of the diagnosis, the support from loved ones, and what he’s learnt from the experience.
Opening up ≠ Vulnerable. Opening up vulnerabilities = Strength.
The social expectation of men needing to be the caretaker of a family, taking financial responsibility, and being emotionally stable has been a norm long overdue. There’s always this saying that: men aren’t supposed to openly express their feelings – a prominent quality attributes to femininity (sighs), because it equates to vulnerability. This is just outright WRONG. In fact, it should be pretty much the opposite case – opening up actually makes you stronger, as Justin mentioned in a Macmillan Cancer Support campaign video.
When asked what he has to say about men openly expressing their emotions and feelings, Justin strongly feels that “it takes a different kind of strength to be openly vulnerable and that’s a type of strength that men typically aren’t as gifted with. Lots of guys feel like they have to show strength at all times to feel like a man or to be emotionally solid…”
Not only is strength expected from a man, but it seems to have an exclusive quality as well. When we talk about strength, we oftentimes associate it with physical fitness, but neglect mental and emotional strength all together.
A medical diagnosis often comes with a mixture of feelings like worry, anxiety, frustration, sometimes luck or sometimes disappointment. When diagnosed with having cancer, Justin recounted that it took some time for “the shock to worn off” before he “decided that something positive must come out of such a negative situation.” And the way he decided to shine out this positivity was to make influence out of his personal experience – by opening up.
“It takes a different kind of strength to be openly vulnerable and that’s a type of strength that men typically aren’t as gifted with.”
Telling others about your diagnosis is not simply a decision of oneself, but it complicates with other concerns as well such as are you ready for how your loved ones would react? And what if you get judged and treated differently because of it? For Justin, though, it seems that what’s more important is to be authentic, optimistic, and accepting – both to yourself and people around you.
I asked Justin what motivated him to decide to speak up and share with the world his battle with cancer. “The first conversation with my family was very scary. I kept delaying breaking the news until eventually I plucked up the courage, put my best smile on, and said I had something important to tell them about. They were heartbroken and scared at first but then showed me such love and support which helped me greatly in all the following conversations with friends and other loved ones.” After taking the first step to opening up about his experience with people he feels the closest, he said that “the more people I told, the easier it became. And I actually became better at it – knowing the right thing to say and how to say it to comfort people’s fears about the situation.”
It shouldn’t be a One-man Battle
When going through hard times, especially ones like Justin’s, support from family and friends are especially crucial to the person’s wellness and recovery. However, receiving support from loved ones could be a two-way street – your loved ones may actually be the ones who could use some support from you. Justin frankly said that “I was incredibly grateful to have my amazing family and friends around, but in some moments, you could tell they were more scared and concerned about me than I was to myself. My mindset was positive throughout all my treatment and I didn’t respond badly to chemotherapy or radiotherapy which people were all in disbelief of. So sometimes it would be an effort to constantly have to reassure people that I was really handling things as positively as they looked.”
Some people may feel pressured or even guilty for their loved ones’ support because they think their situation may not go as positively as their family would have expected. Justin chose to turn it into an optimistic way of thinking, “I can totally understand constant support could make people in my situation feel overwhelmed being the centre of your loved ones’ suffering but I made the choice not to think of things that way.”
Instead of seeing the support and love he received as an expectation, he turned it into a way of hope and optimism, a reminder that this is not a one-man battle, that his family and friends are fighting beside and along with him.
Silence is suffocating, Sharing is liberating
The Macmillan Cancer Support cited that about 500 men are diagnosed with cancer each day, in the UK alone. Yet, “there is no surprise that the biggest killer of men under 40 is suicide because typically we don’t reach out to get the emotional support we need,” Justin said.
There seems to be a stigma around the word cancer because it tends to invoke associations like sickness, weakness, vulnerabilities, and death. For the social standard of how men should react to such situation, opening up about their personal experience is more to them of revealing their “vulnerability side”, than just simply sharing feelings and emotions that they absolutely deserve to. A diagnosis is a diagnosis. It doesn’t matter who’s being diagnosed from. All suffer, and all deserve the same kind of care and love. Going through treatments already exhausts one’s physical and mental strength. No one should need to bear an additional burden of being reserved about it, and dealing with it themselves.
“I’m actually grateful for the experience I had because it gave me the chance to talk about men’s health and the importance of discussing it to a global audience. I’ve been so happy to know that it’s had a positive impact on others.”
It’s easy to tell someone to open up, but if you’re in that same dilemma, it’s really hard to make this first step. It may look intimidating because like Justin said, opening up “doesn’t come naturally to people but think of the costs of not doing so in the long run.” What a lot of people choose to do, unfortunately, is staying silent and ignoring it. “People who suffer in silence often suffer from more pressure of the fears and negative emotions that slowly build up, making it harder to feel ok again – sometimes with tragic consequences. Sharing your feelings is liberating as that weight isn’t only on your shoulders – people who truly love and support you are willing to help you with some of that weight because they don’t want you to suffer alone. You also never know who might be going through the same thing, and having that conversation with a mate down the pub might be exactly what they needed so don’t be scared and don’t be silent.”
Whatever you’re facing, however trivial you think it may be, never be discouraged and stay silent about it. There’s always someone out there that you can seek help from. The first step you need to take is: be authentic and validate how you feel, then address the problem, of course with the help of your loved and trust ones.
Because of his experience, Justin reflected that “I’m actually grateful for the experience I had because it gave me the chance to talk about men’s health and the importance of discussing it to a global audience. I’ve been so happy to know that it’s had a positive impact on others.”
A lot of people would call this “the unfortunate of the unfortunate”, but it actually leaves positive changes to not just Justin, but also to people who may be facing the similar experience. From first accepting the reality, then being encouraging about the need to opening up, to being vocal about addressing men’s emotional support, Justin amplifies his personal story into a much greater impact.