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Colorectal CancerMen's HealthSurvivorship

What It Really Means to “Man Up”

Six months before he was diagnosed with stage IIIB colorectal cancer, both of Joe Bullock’s parents passed away. Chemotherapy hit him hard and stirred a mixture of depression and feelings of inadequacy as a husband and father. Then he discovered the power of opening up.
December 2021 Vol 7 No 6
Joe Bullock
Durham, North Carolina

Six months before I was diagnosed with stage IIIB colorectal cancer, both of my parents passed away. I was my dad’s caregiver for 2 years. Two months after he died, I started having symptoms of colorectal cancer, including blood in my stool, fatigue, and hemorrhoids.

Delayed Colonoscopy

At first, I thought that it might be prostate cancer, because it runs in my family. But when those symptoms popped up, I scheduled a colonoscopy; 2 days before the procedure, my mom died from heart disease. I pushed the colonoscopy back a few months, convinced that I was just stressed and burnt out from all the caregiving and grieving.

Surgery

After having my colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with colon cancer in May 2018. Then, in July 2018 I then had surgery to remove the tumor in the sigmoid region of my colon, along with 40 lymph nodes, 3 of which were positive for cancer.

The Chemo Impact

I had 6 months of chemotherapy with CAPOX (capecitabine and oxaliplatin) followed by 14 days of capecitabine pills. After 9 months, I had a CT scan that showed no evidence of disease. I’ll continue to have a scan until I hit the 5-year cancer-free mark.

Until I started chemo, the thought of cancer treatment felt just like attending my wedding. My wife, who is a nurse, just told me where to stand, where to move, and what to say.

Then chemo began, and the emotions of what it means to have cancer really hit me. I went into a very sad, dark place. I had always been a happy, positive person before cancer, and never thought that I might be depressed.

Being the Man

During treatment, I felt that I had lost a big part of my identity. We were moving my daughter into her dorm room at the beginning of her sophomore year. I remember just sitting outside the dorm on the steps, crying, because I couldn’t carry a single box up the steps.

As a man, a father, a dad, you want to be able to take your daughter’s things to her room. Inside, I felt I was a failure. The rest of my family told me not to worry about it, but I felt that the role I had for so long, as the strong and dependable husband and father, was being taken away from me.

I remember a time early in the treatment, when I was lying on the couch, looking at my family, admiring how beautiful and wonderful each of them was, and knowing that they would be okay without me. They would carry on. But I needed them. I needed to survive for me, to see them grow up.

Getting My Role Back

Once I knew that, I stopped going through the motions, and started getting involved with them, and in their lives again.

I started fighting to get my role back. Some days, I was as physically strong as I used to be; other days, not so much. I had to accept the idea that it was okay not to be okay. That’s not to say that it wasn’t difficult: I spent a lot of that time in tears.

Fortunately, my wife and I had good communication before cancer, a strong foundation that helped us ride these dark days. Today, I deal with some physical challenges, particularly neuropathy, and not being able to feel the digits in my hands and feet, that can make my life challenging at times. But I’m back in my role as a husband and a father.

Post-Treatment Blues

I also struggled with a kind of mourning period after I finished treatment. During treatment, I had something to do. After treatment, I was just sitting around, not doing anything, and waiting for the cancer to come back. Therapy helped with that, as did my family’s support, and the support group at my cancer center.

I also joined another support group called COLONTOWN (http://colontown.org), and befriended someone who eventually died from cancer. He advocated for me to stand up and encourage men to talk more about their cancer experiences. After he died, I realized I hadn’t fulfilled my promise to advocate for men to be more open, and to talk about their cancer journeys.

Advocating for Men

With Trevor Maxwell, Founder of Man Up to Cancer.

I stopped teaching pre-K kids, which was a major change. I felt that part of my life was over. I pivoted by fulfilling my promise to helping men. It started out organically, when I would pick up and drop off patients to their hospital appointments.

Later, I connected with my friend, Trevor Maxwell, a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor, on COLONTOWN, and I supported him in the administration of the Facebook community he created—Man Up to Cancer (www.manuptocancer.com). Our goal is to change the way men handle their cancer diagnosis. As Trevor said in a recent press release, “The core of Man Up to Cancer is about being strong enough to accept help. We’re trying to flip the script on what ‘manning up’ means.” We are now well over 1,000 members strong, and growing.

Opening Up

It’s funny; the work I did as a teacher for 20 years is still a part of the work I do now. In my work as a teacher, I would have conversations with parents about their kids—how they were doing, what their emotions were like in class—and talked about ways I could support the kids.

The idea of getting men to be more open about themselves has made me more open. I used to just fulfill my duties at home; now I’m much more talkative than before. Spending all these hours supporting other men who are going through the cancer experience was not what I would have done before my cancer diagnosis. I was not that open then; that’s been a major pivot for me.

Before cancer, I would have never thought about pursuing something just for me. But when I started working with Trevor, and I wanted to go up to visit him in Maine in the early days of the pandemic, that was one of the first times that I took time just for me. That was an important shift.

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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