We’ve come a long way from the 1940s and 1950s when men didn’t cry — not when they stubbed a toe or came back from the war and certainly not in front of strangers. In the last 20-plus years, we have seen a loosening up of the “stiff upper lip,” and we now see men crying in all sorts of places. Even the President of the United States of America was shown with a tear sliding down his cheek on television.
Men cry in my office too: Old men, young men, men with cancer and men accompanying their spouses who have cancer. Some of them weep openly, their faces twisted with tears cascading down their cheeks. Others fight it. They press their lips together and blink repeatedly but often lose the fight to control it, then quickly brush their hands over their face as if to wipe away their feelings.
It never fails to move me in a visceral and almost physically painful way.
There are two particular patients whose tears almost bring me to my knees. One is a man in his early 50s with metastatic disease. He is a man of great intellect and charm. He is thoughtful and introspective. I look forward to seeing him even though I know my heart will ache for days after his appointment. He is a great storyteller and as he speaks, a single tear inches down his face that is bloated from chemotherapy. I am not even sure that he is aware that he is crying. He often smiles and laughs after describing something that is so painful to him and by virtue of my presence, vicariously to me too. The reason that he comes to see me is to try and come to terms with his existential suffering in the face of terminal cancer. I often have no words to offer him, but after every appointment he thanks me for helping him.
The other patient is a man newly widowed. He has been a challenging patient over the years — a man who, by virtue of his personality and profession, thought he was always in control. He was shocked by his cancer diagnosis and raged against all of us as if we were the cause. I knew his anger was based in his fear, and with the help of his calm and loving wife I helped him through the treatment decision-making process and through the challenges of early recovery. He called me last week and I could barely hear his words. His jaw was clenched as he fought the tears that inevitably came and he choked out his feelings. He is alone at the end of the day, paralyzed with loneliness, and for once, he cannot control his feelings. His tears reached me over the phone, bitter tears for which nothing has prepared him.
These tears, and the tears of many other patients, have a profound effect on me. Not a negative effect, but rather one that causes my empathy to overflow. I hold my own tears in check until they leave, and depending on the day and the other patients I have to see afterwards, I cry in my car on the way home. I’m not sure what it is about these (and other) men crying that makes me upset. I certainly see my female patients cry and it doesn’t affect me the same way. Is it because somewhere in my past I was taught that men don’t cry? Does it reflect the lessons I learned in training as a nurse, that to show emotions in front of patients was akin to a sin? Would I have it any other way? To be removed from their pain and angst? No way, not ever.
Anne Katz is a certified sexual counselor and a clinical nurse specialist at a large, regional cancer center in Canada who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Anne Katz.
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