Men with cancer bond in support group
It was about five years ago when Walt Beigegrain flopped onto his bed, crossed his arms and felt a lump on his chest.
“What is that?” he wondered. About five weeks later, after summoning the courage to seek help, his doctor initially confirmed that yes, he had a lump, but it couldn’t be breast cancer, because men don’t get breast cancer. Another physician echoed those same thoughts.
However, tests showed a different story, and Beigegrain’s breast cancer was in Stage II, which is a treatable phase.
“I figured, ‘So what, I have breast cancer,’ ” he said. “I can deal with that.”
Beigegrain did deal with that. He had the tumor removed in surgery. He now can talk openly about his breast cancer, but he knows other men suffer alone after being diagnosed with breast cancer or any other form of the disease.
For the past few years, a local all-male group, Men Against Cancer Helping Others, or MACHO, has been attracting more members than any of the numerous cancer-support groups for women organized through St. Mary’s Hospital, said Debra Hesse, coordinator of cancer survivor programs for St. Mary’s Cancer Center.
At a recent meeting, men gathered around tables at a coffee shop near the hospital and greeted one another with strong handshakes and pats to the back.
Dressed in blue jeans, button-up shirts or T-shirts and sneakers or hiking boots, the men stick to an agenda that usually includes a guest speaker and review of a book related to cancer.
But outside of those general guidelines, men said they’ve grown to feel free to be themselves, and conversations can include guys asking each other advice about their battles with similar forms of cancer or tips on how to be a better husband to a spouse with the disease.
But the reason the meetings work, they said, is because a group dynamic helps ease the stigma men feel about getting cancer.
Also the focus is neither a “prayer session, or a pity party,” they said.
“The male instinct is, if there’s a problem, I need to fix it,” said Michael Appel, the lead pharmacist who helps run meetings.
The bulk of public awareness has long focused on women getting and coping with cancer.
Often men, unaccustomed to sharing their feelings, are at a disadvantage when they or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, Appel said.
They soon discover that cancer is a problem they cannot fix.
A common first inclination may be to ignore it, which can result in depression.
These are feelings Bill Hill experienced when was diagnosed five years ago with lung cancer that had metastasized to his spine.
He thought he was tough enough — man enough— to fight cancer without outside help.
“I was prescribed chemotherapy, but I wasn’t too hot on that,” Hill said.
“I was going into shock and denial, the typical male stance.”
After Hill agreed to undergo chemotherapy treatment, he searched for a men’s cancer support group and was startled when one didn’t exist.
“There wasn’t any. They told me that men were too macho, and they always try to suffer in silence,” Hill said.
Working off those comments, Hill devised the name, MACHO, a word that he says would honor men’s egos and honor their dignity.
A longtime community volunteer, Hill began telling everyone he knew about the sessions, and now the group has grown to 30 people.
“They really want to reach out to other men, but it’s got to be a bewildering thing for them to get cancer,” said Barbara Hill, Bill’s wife.
“For women, we know what to do.”
Word about the group is spreading, and now health care centers around the state and country want to duplicate it, coordinators said.
Part of its success may be that members form lasting friendships, often visiting each other during hospital stays or at their homes during recovery.
When a member died recently, others consoled his widow, helping her perform chores around the home.
Members are offered some free or reasonably priced vacations through nonprofit organizations, which often include activities that interest them.
A yearly fishing trip near Basalt makes for a popular destination, and spouses and families are encouraged to attend other retreats in the Rockies.
“When you go on retreats, they say you can leave the toilet seat up,” said Glenn Kempers, group coordinator.
“That sounded really good to me.”
Jim Dunn wishes the group had been around when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996.
Public awareness then wasn’t what it is now. The World War II veteran and retired physician fell into depression after receiving the news.
“I could treat people with cancer, I just couldn’t deal with it myself,” he said.
“I wish this group would have been here when I was diagnosed.”