We need to talk about cancer

Faced with life-threatening illness, men often find it hard to share their feelings. A unique group allows them to open up to each other. Simon Usborne sits in

Piers Moth is a musician from south London who has an inoperable brain tumour. He's 31. More than a year after his diagnosis, he sits with a cup of tea on a sofa with three other men. Books line shelves, sunlight streams through windows, art hangs on walls. Relaxed, friendly, and in good humour, the men have been brought here by cancer and the need to talk about it, yet this peaceful room is the only place in the country where they can, man to man.

“It’s a bit like going out with the boys for a few pints, just without the alcohol,” Moth says

More than 150,000 men are diagnosed with cancer each year, of whom more than 12,000 are under 50. There are around the same number of new cases among women, who can, if they want to, choose from hundreds of support groups. Yet Moth is one of the founding members of Britain’s first group of its kind for men.

They meet on Fridays at the London outpost of Maggie’s, the Glasgow-based cancer charity. Its centres look and feel nothing like hospitals or clinics, but rather comfortable homes. Visitors at the west London centre, which was designed by Lord Rogers and opened in 2008 in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital, arrive inside a kitchen, where patients and their families mingle with staff. Even the cleaning products are chosen to banish the antiseptic fug we associate with the NHS.

“I suppose I’m the Daddy of the group,” says Andrew “Dodge” Dodgshon, 52. While he was undergoing brain surgery in the hospital next door, his wife, Jane, waited at Maggie’s. She bumped into Moth. “He talked her into bringing me along to a group,” Dodgshon recalls. “I thought it was either going to be a great seminar or it would be morbid and involve hand-wringing. But there has been such a rich variety of conversations, some of them completely not cancer-related.

“We’ve faced death and setbacks in our treatment, but it’s really good to come down and talk to outsiders who understand what you’re going through.”

Dodgshon’s initial hesitance was common of many men who would sooner not talk about their health. “Mo bros” the world over are being encouraged, regardless of their ability, to grow a moustache as part of the annual Movember campaign, which last year raised £80m to help “change the face of men’s health”. The campaign, like many others, concerns primarily male-specific cancers and their detection - the “check your plums” approach. But, whatever cancer you’ve got, where do you turn to help navigate treatment and its effects on your mind and family when you’ve already been diagnosed?

“There’s no screening for my sort of cancer,” says Dodgshon, who works for Unite the Union and was only diagnosed after a seizure. “In addition to the disease you’re trying to deal with the psychological trauma of being OK one day and then facing the surgeon’s knife, the burning sensation of radiotherapy or whatever chemotherapy throws your way. You can’t deal with it on your own.”

Moth was diagnosed in August last year. He soon crossed paths with Chris Geoghegan, 42, who worked in publishing before doctor’s found he, too, had a brain tumour. “I thought it would be brilliant to have a chat with someone going through a similar situation,” Moth recalls. They arranged to meet at Maggie’s, where staff suggested the pair form a free, walk-in group for men, not certain it would be popular. It quickly filled up.

Moth says that gender plays a role in our approach to illness. “I don’t know whether it sounds chauvinistic - I don’t intend it to - but men converse differently,” he says. Dodgshon adds: “Sometimes it’s just good to talk to a man. I go to an all-blokes book group, my wife goes to an all-women book group. What does that say? I’m not sure, but it works.”

Meetings start when the men are ready. “We usually drift in between half 10 and 11,” Dodgshon explains. “We raid the coffee and biscuits and then start talking about anything: what’s in the paper, football results - anything or nothing. And then that will usually kick-start something.”

Chris Nichols, 28, is the group’s youngest current member. He was diagnosed in July last year with cancer of the salivary gland but is now in remission and back at work in the legal industry. He identifies with reluctant men. “It’s a bit of a cliche to say we don’t like talking but I think it’s true,” he says. “When I first came here with my Dad, it was amazing how uncomfortable he was.”

The men are joined by two members of Maggie’s staff, who happen to be women. Monique Proudlove is a psychologist and Elaine Stewart is a support specialist and former nurse. They occasionally steer conversation or offer advice, but only in response to what the men are saying: there is no agenda.

“We were very aware that we were women coming in,” Proudlove tells the group. “Maybe you don’t seek contact in the same way but when you’re here in the group, it dispels the myth. The conversation and rhythm can be different but then it will shift gear and we go to the darkest places, and then step out again.”

Three members of the group have died since it was formed over a year ago. They include Danny Fullbrook, the former chief football writer at the Daily Star, who died in June aged 40, and had been “desperate” to find a place like this.“You get to know people and you know that it could happen to us,” Dodgshon says. “It’s not easy dealing with an empty chair, a physical reminder that Andrew’s not here or Danny’s not here, or Matt’s not here. You miss them because you’ve built a bond.”

These bonds can do much to preserve those outside the group. “When you get a diagnosis you end up having to do do a lot of counselling for your friends and family,” Moth explains. “You’re the first person they need to get reassurance from and you end up taking on a lot.”

The group provides, among many other things, a safe place to talk about life expectancy. “People have had very different takes on it,” Nichols says. “Some want a rough estimate, and some don’t want to know. You can’t speak to your family about that sort of thing, or it’s hard to, however supportive they are. Here we’ve had very animated discussions.”

Nichols adds: “You can also get really tired trying to tell everyone you’re all right all the time. You don’t have to do that here.”

Chris Geoghegan’s two older brothers are frequently out of the country (one lives in Singapore) and his mother and stepmother have both died, his mother of cancer when he was 14. “My father’s 86 next week,” he says. “I don’t want to burden him with my cancer too much. I can talk about things here rather than with him.”

Shared experiences as well as the advice of staff have also become vital in helping the men deal with perhaps the second most important relationship in their lives, that with their doctors. “You go into the consultant’s room for 10 or 15 minutes looking for reassurance and come out feeling frustrated,” Dodgshon says. “But in the group we learn how to talk and listen.”

Elaine Stewart, the former nurse, has used her background to offer the men practical advice about treatment. Nichols, meanwhile, wants the group to help draw up a guide to making the most of consultations that Maggie’s could offer to all patients who pass through its doors. Until that time, Dodgshon says, “this group is the next best thing to a training course for dealing with cancer.”

There have been as many as 12 men at these Friday meetings but even after a year it remains, as far as Maggie’s can determine, the only one of its kind. The men believe more men would join groups like it if they could. To help raise awareness, and funds for Maggie’s, Moth has formed a barbershop quartet with Dodgshon, Nichols and another occasional member called Ben. They will perform their own song at a Maggie’s Christmas carols concert next month. Moth says he had to tone down the lyrics (“we packed it full of innuendo”) which make up an irreverent tribute to Maggie’s. “We just can’t wait to get up there and sing it,” he says.

Find out more about Maggie's at maggiescentres.org. For tickets to the carol concert, visit ind.pn/Maggies

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