Seeking Understanding: A grounded theory examination of how men with cancer experience help seeking




Wenger, Lisa

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University of Guelph


Amidst limited information on how men with cancer experience help seeking during illness, this study was organized around two research questions: (a) how are men with cancer perceiving, interpreting, and understanding needs and sources of support during illness? and (b) in light of these understandings, how are they building patterns of support (informal and formal) with others? Integrating a symbolic interactionist perspective and engaging a constructivist grounded theory methodology, in-depth, individual interviews were conducted with 30 men diagnosed with cancer. Participants included men with a variety of cancer types/ stages, a diversity of occupational and educational backgrounds, and ranging in age from early 30s to mid 80s (mean age 59). Most of the participants were white, heterosexual, able-bodied, in a partnership, and born in Canada, although the study included men who identified as gay, gender queer, from racialized groups, single/ divorced, and were immigrants to this country. A substantive theory of how men with cancer experience help seeking was developed. Results indicate that as men experienced cancer as a ‘biographical disruption’ help seeking functioned as a way to both resist and adapt to identity threats. ‘Help seeking with a strong back’ allowed the men to solicit help from others (e.g. health providers, friends, family, others with cancer) in efforts to develop informational and physical resources important to resisting the threats, a process accompanied by attempts to maintain familiar ways of being and limit emotional engagement. In contrast, ‘help seeking with a soft front’ allowed the men to obtain assistance in efforts to acknowledge and adapt to threats, a process engaged as men sought out others willing to hear their struggles, include them in a community sharing this experience, and provide them with guidance on how to live a life disrupted by cancer. Although both forms of help seeking could be valuable amidst illness, most men experienced help seeking with a strong back as relatively unproblematic and consistent with masculine ideals of leadership, control, and stoicism, while help seeking with a soft front was often less anticipated, less welcomed and less comfortable amidst gendered norms discouraging men’s recognition and expression of vulnerability. Recommendations for research and practice are provided.



Men, Cancer, Seeking help, Biographical disruption, Emotional engagement, Identify threats