It was only after he had left hospital that Lee Anderson Brown realised his cancer treatment was not really over.
The medical side was. He had survived surgery, radiation and months of chemotherapy, and doctors agreed he was in remission. For this he was grateful.
But emotionally, he still felt like a man afflicted. The cancer experience had so saturated his life that he found it impossible to pick up where he had left off.
Yet that was the expectation. Others urged him back to work and back to having a good time. He tried, but internally he felt crippled.
Brown, now 37, managed to resume work as a machinist and struggled along for more than a decade until something quite unexpected happened. He saw a pamphlet for a cancer support group and, although it was not the sort of thing he would normally respond to, he decided to enquire.
Generally, Brown didn’t like groups. He had been a loner in his youth and the cancer had made others seem even more remote. While he lay weak and nauseous in hospital, he kept thinking how his youthful peers were in control of their lives.
In fact, the night he first discovered the cancer, he was at a party on the South Coast. While others were carousing he was bent over in pain, vomiting. His friends thought he had drunk too much and delayed taking him to hospital.
Brown’s cancer began in an undescended testicle and spread across his lower belly to the edge of his liver. Treatment was long.
As the years passed, and the remission held, he despaired of ever really fitting in. Consultations with counsellors and other professionals didn’t help.
Then, with considerable reservations, he went to the support group. Brown, who is now a university honours student and living in Sydney’s Inner West, says that in the group he finally found people who could understand the feelings he had kept hidden for so long.
“I found that to share another’s tears was finally to express the tears I repressed so long ago; to share another's fear was to feel the strength of a common bond, and to be touched by another's pain was to feel my own pain lessen because it no longer seemed so absolutely mine.
“In a real sense, being able to share the experience of cancer with the group has freed me from the need to share it with anyone else. Having a safe space, where all my feelings about my cancer will be understood, has allowed me to leave my cancer experience behind with the group, and once again start to relate to people outside the group on matters we have in common.
“The group freed me. It was liberating and now, a year later, I’m in a committed relationship. This would have been unimaginable before.”
Brown says it is difficult to go to a support group because it means admitting you need help. With cancer, there is tremendous loss of control. You relinquish control over what happens physically, and so you hold onto yourself emotionally for fear of losing that, too. But the paradox for him was that by letting go emotionally, he gained more control.
There is a network of cancer support groups throughout New South Wales. Some groups offer talks on treatment developments, some provide the opportunity for people to meet others who have had the same cancer and some are experiential, encouraging the emotional expression of the cancer experience.
Brown went to an experiential group run by The Life Force Foundation. These groups were started by a counsellor, Jill Pascoe, who believes that men recovering from cancer find it difficult to reach out for help. From childhood, men are schooled “to take it like a man” and not be “a cry baby”.
“There is an expectation in our society for men to be brave and strong and to get on with life once treatment is over,” says Pascoe. “Revealing how deep their anguish is, or how vulnerable they feel is viewed as failure to cope. It is not considered legitimate for them to become emotionally overwhelmed.
“However, men in the groups feel tremendous relief when they are allowed to express their feelings without anyone judging, censoring or blaming them.”
Pascoe began the Life Force groups after she recovered from cancer herself. When diagnosed four years ago, she went through the treatment stage as “a very good, smiling, compliant patient.”
“But after I was waved off and sent home, it really hit me. Suddenly I felt very isolated and alone. I looked around for help and I couldn’t find any.
“When I think now how I felt and I add the extra burden of being male I can see what a terrible pressure men must be under.”
Thanks to the Sydney Morning Herald for the use of this story...
Share the pain, shed the tears and let the good times roll again
Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, March 9th, 1995