Both men and women are called upon to be care givers when loved ones are diagnosed with cancer, and both suffer the same psychological and emotional distress. Both need the embrace of a caring support network. But do both react similarly in similar situations?

When we envision the caregiver of a seriously ill family member we usually conjure up the image of a woman. This is not sexist bias. Both men and women think the same way in this regard. It’s a statistical reality. More women than men are found in the role of caregivers. Why?

In most marriages, the husband is older than his wife. Couple this statistic with the fact that women, on average, live longer than men. It is also statistically true that a man’s working environment is often more physically demanding and inherently dangerous that of women, even when working outside the home. This statistics describe a situation where the probability of accident and the normal ravages of age inflict the husband first, leaving his wife in the role of caretaker. Regarding cancer specifically, statistics infer that men are more likely than women to pursue lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking, misuse of alcohol, and poor diet that place them at greater risk of getting cancer, but statistics is a tricky discipline.

Even though our tendency to envision women as caregivers is supported by statistics that place male caretakers in the minority, it is in reality a sizable minority. Recorded incidences of cancer in women may be slightly lower internationally than that recorded in men, but the numbers are not that far apart. Actual numbers indicate that there a sizeable number of men that find themselves in the role of carer for a spouse or loved one fighting cancer. To what degree they are involved, however, is another matter.

Although employment demographics are now rapidly changing to reflect more equal opportunities for men and women in professional and higher paid employment, men have traditionally provided a larger part of family income. For either man or woman, where income or financial resources are sufficient, the caregiver may continue with a job or career and arrange for third parties to provide the day-to-day care necessary for the loved one. (Interesting to note is that these third parties, whether family members or hired professional caregivers are most often women.)

Others, less fortunate, may need to juggle many balls trying to provide both income and care. In all cases, however, the caregiver will benefit from the emotional support of a network of friends or from outside support groups. The question is, Is a man as likely as a woman to seek out or accept outside guidance and emotional support as a woman would?

According to a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, funded by the United States National Institute of Health, men, whether they have cancer or are the care giver, are less likely than women to join a live support group. Those that do, both men and women, attend for about one year before leaving the group. Both men and women attend for the same reason: to seek information about the disease, and to compare progress with others.

A recent trend is discussed in a paper by Tamar Ginossar, called Exploring Participation in Cancer-Related Virtual Communities, presented at the 2008 annual meeting of the International Communication Association in New York. Increasing numbers of men and women are using technology and turning to virtual internet-based support groups for emotional and informational support regarding cancer. It is interesting to note that while both sexes exchanged emails to share information about their respective types of cancer, men were less likely to post messages of encouragement and support than women. One can infer from this that men are drawn to virtual support groups to share important information and experience while emotionally isolating themselves from other group members.

Custom, tradition, culture; all have contributed to the go?it?alone, stiff?upper ­?lip comportment of many men when facing emotionally difficult challenges, including the impact of caring for a loved one with cancer. Hopefully, as our culture moves more and more toward equality of the sexes in personal, professional, and social relationships, men will find it easier to recognize and accept the intimacy and help that can be received from support groups, as they face the tribulations of caring for a loved one with cancer.

                      Caring for a loved one with cancer can be physically and psychologically exhausting. Sharing concerns and frustrations with others in an understanding support group of similar cancer hosts and caregivers can help markedly. Women seem to gravitate naturally to this type of support; men are more reluctant. It is important for all caregivers, men and women, to seek out and accept the help of a support network.

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