2014 was a rough year for Gary Jennings. In March, he was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. In other words, Gary had cancer.
“I felt a lump in my throat in February of that year and completed seven weeks of cancer treatment by June,” he says.
That same year, Jennings got a double whammy when his wife was diagnosed with colon cancer. “She had a successful surgery and we convalesced together,” Jennings says.
Although everyone’s cancer journey is different, research shows that support groups can improve quality of life and survival. For Gary, help came from the Man Cave: Men’s Cancer Support Group at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
“I felt lost and a little alone after my treatment, and hoped there would be something like these meetings to carry me through the transition from patient to survivor,” he says.
The group welcomes men at any point in their cancer experience — from newly diagnosed to those in treatment, post-treatment or remission — offering a safe place were men can explore important issues and share their stories.
According to Linda Hutkin-Slade, a clinical oncology social worker at Sharp Grossmont and the group’s facilitator, men and women process information differently. So having a men-only group allows them to support each other in a way that’s comfortable for them.
“Men also tend to rely solely on their partners for support and this can cause a great deal of strain on the relationship. The Man Cave creates another outlet for support,” she says. In Gary’s case, his wife was also dealing with cancer.
Discussion covers the basics of helping patients better understand their diagnosis, treatment and side effects, but also explores issues related to work, family and future health.
“A cancer diagnosis often requires major changes in roles within a couple and family. For men, this can be a big challenge, because work and providing for a family are major components of their self-identity and cancer often strips this away, at least for a while,” notes Hutkin-Slade.
Jennings adds, “The greatest benefit of the group is sharing personal stories that bring closeness and make it possible to share any issue.”
“As a patient, I was swept up in an overwhelming world that was alien to anything I'd ever experienced,” he says. “It’s helpful to talk with other men who are battling cancer. I’ve learned that you need to educate yourself about your diagnosis. Hard truths are faced and hope is lifted up.”
Hutkin-Slade says that discussions can be difficult, but there tends to be more humor and laughter than sadness at these sessions.
More than two years after treatment, Jennings is grateful for the support and care he’s received. “The entire staff is so caring and professional that I still go by and see them. I can’t forget everything we went through. That’s right, we.”
The Man Cave: Men’s Cancer Support Group meets the second Wednesday of every month, from 5:30 to 7 pm.
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