Strong Backs and Soft Fronts

15 Aug 2018 1:44 PM | Brandon Davenport (Administrator)

Wenger, L. (2013). Moving through illness with Strong Backs and Soft Fronts: A substantive theory of men’s help-seeking during cancer.  Men and Masculinities, 16, 517-539.

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In recent years, we have begun to understand men’s responses to prostate cancer and its treatment in order to provide psychosocial support. However, men experience a wide range of other types of cancer. When it comes to these other types of cancer, we often assume that men and women respond to a cancer diagnosis in similar ways and need similar types of support.   In Dr. Lisa Wenger’s recent publication, she turns this assumption on its head. Drawing on a growing body of knowledge constructing health and illness as opportunities for gendered practices, she asks how men navigate the disruptions to life and identity that are triggered by a diagnosis of cancer. Based on in-depth interviews with 30 men, ranging in age from 30 to early 80s with a range of cancer diagnoses, she details patterns of help-seeking using the metaphor of “strong backs” and “soft fronts.”  Dr. Wenger explains that, in line with hegemonic masculinities, men present themselves as strong, stoic and brave. So for the men in her study, the “strong back” approach felt natural and they were comfortable with clinicians and family who wanted to support them in recovering who they were. However, difficulties were often experienced as the men confronted losses, uncertainties and the profound disruptions to their identity. These difficulties were related to their discomforts in expressing vulnerability and resistance to identity changes, and the lack of responsiveness of our health system to men’s emotional pain.  Dr. Wenger explains that we have been pretty good at “strong back” supports to help men hold onto familiar selves by focusing on information, stress management and healthy living. She encourages us to ask how we are addressing men’s “soft front” needs and challenges us to develop innovative approaches that assist men in balancing “strong backs” and “soft fronts” as they learn to live with cancer.

Why I like this article:  The article provides a new window into men’s experiences of a range of cancers and raises questions about how cancer supports should be designed for men. I think the rich descriptions of men’s experiences in balancing “strong backs” and “soft fronts” as they confront cancer hold great potential in increasing our ability to be gender aware in our interactions with men with cancer.  The time has come to recognize the limits of a one-size-fits-all approach to psychosocial oncology.

Prepared by Dr. Joan Bottorff

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