Nick Wasser’s father was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer at the end of 2011. He had gone through quite a few radiation treatments, and doctors put him on trial medications. For a while, things were looking good. They said he was in remission, but then at the end of 2012, he went in for MRIs and routine checkups, and they noticed it had spread a little to his bones. He did another round of radiation, but at that point, treatments stopped being effective. Cancer continued to spread to his brain stem, and by the spring of 2013, it was virtually everywhere. He couldn’t see or walk very well, and by the summer, doctors classified him as terminally ill and gave him 2-3 months to live. A couple of days later, they drastically revised the estimate. Doctors now said it would really be more like 4-6 weeks. Just a day later, they shifted the timeline yet again — to a startling week and a half. “He passed a week after that update, and it was very overwhelming,” Nick revealed.
Nick first became involved with the Movember foundation in 2011, the year that his father was diagnosed. “I was aware of their campaigns through social media – I knew they were all about growing mustaches for men’s health and became even more passionate when I found out it was for prostate cancer. The first year I did it, I recruited friends and implemented initiatives in the college I worked at, to grow mustaches. One of my initiatives was to get a mustache as part of a goal to raise money. I actually got it done, and at this point, I’ve raised almost 5k. A little initiative goes a long way.”
Although Nick’s dad never spoke out to him about the mental burdens that came with such a tragic and fast-moving physical crisis, he was always an advocate of expressing yourself, as opposed to bottling it all up. “I could see that he was depressed, and I wouldn’t doubt that he had more direct conversations about it with my mom. But he was always the type to put on a strong face. He was more concerned about his family than himself. He’d make sure we were ok before him.”
Prioritizing being a provider seems a theme that rings true for men of all ages, but for older men to advocate self-expression is rarer. I note that men of a certain age are more inclined to march to the old beat of “boys don’t cry”, a stiff-upper-lip mentality.
Nick agrees that his dad was definitely more on the progressive side. “If we ever had issues, like when our grandparents passed, he would always come talk to us. He’d say, there’s no shame in being upset or crying. If he was going through something, he’d show it, and let us know that it was alright to get help. There was no sense of shame in that.”
Nick reveals that while he wasn’t aware of his dad going to therapy, he reached out to someone. “I went to my family doctor for unrelated issues at the time that things were really going downhill. It was the same doctor as my dad, and when he asked me how things were, I just sat there and let it all out, crying for half an hour. Concerned, he put off seeing his other patients. That was the first time that anyone outside of my family had asked how I was doing. Until that moment, I had squashed down my sadness, and that doctor asking opened up a whole can of worms, which took me by surprise. Still, it was better than holding it all in.”
Honesty and trust and not shutting people out played a big part in the grieving process, Nick reflects. “During times like these, you need to invest your trust in the people close to you, and give them the chance to be there and support you – it will only make you closer.” This kind of intimacy over shared feelings doesn’t come easy to men and between them, but, like others of this new generation, Nick discovered how the risk was worth it. “When all of this was going down, I went over to my best friend’s house and cried, but never felt judged. I was upfront with my feelings and our friendship has grown since then. In the end, it made us closer. These moments where you show your vulnerability and confide will always strengthen bonds and are huge factors in dealing with a crisis.” Although during this time Nick didn’t have a girlfriend to confide in, he felt a resounding amount of support from the people around him. “My sister had her boyfriend and my mom had my dad. They could go to someone at the end of the day, and of course I wished I had that. But the support of my close friends was there. My friend’s mom had breast cancer so he could really empathize. I couldn’t have done without him.”
A year after Nick’s dad passed, he met his current girlfriend, a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel of grief. “She, without judgment, let me open up completely and be upset. She took a very honest interest in my dad, which let me talk about him organically. She just had this whole-hearted interest in who he was and what he did. She still talks about him, even though she never had the opportunity to meet him. We’ve been through a lot since then, and things would have been, and still would be, a lot harder without her.”
Acceptance of your feelings is vital to anyone dealing with loss of this magnitude, and Nick realizes that it is a crucial and necessary step. “Whatever you’re feeling is totally normal. For some it takes longer, for some it’s immediate. There’s no wrong way to deal with your feelings. But never feel like you’re being a burden for your experience, or an inconvenience because you’re depressed. It’s natural. Don’t feel scrutinized. Seeking help is totally natural, and doesn’t make you less of a man, or person, or partner.”
I comment on how the Movember Director of Development, Mitch Hermansen and I spoke extensively about the toxic culture of the “tough it out” mentality, and how with organizations like Movember, we can help boys redefine words like bravery. Nick agreed and expanded on it, saying, “If anything, it takes strength and courage to admit that you’re having a tough time. To admit it makes you a stronger person. Not hiding and putting stuff out in the open is hard, but once you start getting things off your chest and out of your head, it makes you feel better. Courage isn’t sucking it up. It’s acknowledging the fact that you need help, and that takes balls! And you don’t need to resort to self-medicating or anti-depressants – I didn’t. A good conversation goes a long way.”
In terms of the healing process, Nick is honest about the fact that something like this never goes away. “You just need to create a new normal. It’s not like getting over the sadness. I still feel this great big hole, and I still wish I could show him something or tell him something . . . But I stay positive and avoid pitfalls like depression by knowing that he wouldn’t want us to feel that way. He would want us to keep living and be happy. You can put a positive spin on those sad moments by recalling things they would have said in a situation, or their advice, or how proud they would be of you.”
His advice in supporting loved oes who are going through a state of illness and decline is simple and direct: action speaks louder than words. His passion for the Movember foundation is true to that sentiment. “Just be there for them. A lot of people play the “is there anything I can do?” card, but I hated that. It was such a generic question that was easy to pose, and I never felt comfortable asking people for anything. But if someone brought over dinner and did small things without asking, it went a lot further with me. So, show that you care. Taking the initiative goes a long way. When I was grieving, I had a friend who called me every Friday for two months, asking me to go for a beer. Every time I said no, but he persevered. He need not have bothered asking again and again, but he kept at it, and I eventually said yes.”
So what are you going to take away from this? What are you going to do to prove that your actions speak louder than words? Remember to appreciate the network of support that exists around you, which you might have taken for granted until a crisis came along and forced you to find a silver lining – then act on it. You might begin by raising awareness and funds for an organization you hold close to your heart. Also, remember to show yourself self-care just as much as you care for your loved ones – as Nick does when he remembers that his father would want him to continue a thriving, bountiful life. Do these things, and let our voices become acts of courage that strengthen ourselves, as well as those around us.
Part 2 of a 5 part series. Click here to learn more about the Movember foundation.