by VICTOR M. PARACHIN
Breast cancer was diagnosed. Once the diagnosis was made, my emotions caught up with me and I cried. The shock and surprise had moved on to fear. I had cancer! Cancer? Other people got cancer, not me.
Jane Handwerk in “The Breast Cancer Book of Strength and Courage” shared the above comments. Perhaps the four most frightening words any woman can hear are “You have breast cancer.” When that diagnosis is made, a woman will experience a wide range of emotions: fear, anxiety, depression and loneliness. When breast cancer is diagnosed, a woman needs support from family, friends and, most importantly, her husband or boyfriend. Here are six ways a man can help when his wife has breast cancer.
1. Be there. If your wife is concerned a lump in her breast may be cancerous go with her to the doctor’s office. If you’re at work and she calls you to say “it’s cancer” then leave work and be there with her. Marc Silver, author of “Breast Cancer Husband: How To Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond,” explains what transpired in his home. His wife, Marsha, had a mammogram that showed something suspicious. Since she’d had similar readings in past years which were false alarms, neither she nor her husband were concerned. “But at 11 a.m. Marsha called me at work. Her voice sounded strained. I knew something was wrong. A very blunt radiologist took a second mammogram and said, ‘Sure looks like cancer to me.’ My response deserves a spot in the hall of bad husbandly remarks: ‘Ew, that doesn’t sound good.’ Instead of rushing home to her side, I stayed at work all day … Marsha was left wondering, ‘Did I call the wrong husband?’” Learning from that experience Silver now advises men: “Be there. I was thinking ‘I have no clue what to do.’ But all I needed to do was hug her, hold her and say, ‘This is awful news, but we’ll get through it together. ’”
2. Remember these nine words. A cancer diagnosis is the time to remind yourself of these nine words from traditional marriage vows, to love, honor and cherish in sickness and in health. A great deal of fear comes with a breast cancer diagnosis. One fear is abandonment. Many women know or hear about men who just couldn’t handle the pressure and bailed out. One man recalls being with his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer. “She broke down and cried. I held her in my arms trying to reassure her that we would do this together. When her tears ended, she said ‘Don’t leave me.’” Offset any fears your wife may have about your loyalty by telling her you love her; you’ll be there for her no matter how she looks, how she feels, what she says. Your love and support will see her through the darkest days.
A cancer diagnosis is the time to remind yourself of these nine words from traditional marriage vows, to love, honor and cherish in sickness and in health.
3. Go with her to medical appointments. There will be a massive amount of new information coming your wife’s way. It can help greatly to have two sets of ears to hear and later process the information together. “In the crazy days after diagnosis, your wife will run from doctor to doctor, seeking the best team to care for her cancer and sorting out treatment options,” says Silver. “Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Chemo before or after surgery? What kind of chemo? You job is to go with her. Hold her hand in the waiting room. Take notes or record each visit, because patients in shock typically forget much of what the doctor says, and what they do remember is often wrong,” he adds. You can also be helpful before appointments by asking her to sit with you and develop a list of questions, which can be asked of the doctor during the visit. Silver adds this additional wisdom about such lists: “I’d be the keeper of the list. As the clock was ticking, I would gently remind her of questions to ask—but never ask for her unless she wants you to.”
4. Encourage your wife to let others help her. Being on the receiving end of help is very difficult for many women. After musical artist Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer she said, “I, like so many other women, have mastered putting everyone else’s needs before my own. For me, the mere act of letting people take care of me was a challenge. It felt completely foreign.” To her credit, Crow permitted herself to receive help and nurture from others. “The first week of radiation, my mother made eight different kinds of organic soup. My dad got up at the crack of dawn to feed my dogs, make the coffee, pick up the paper. My family took week long shifts to take care of me—or just be there.” As a partner, you may have to gently remind your wife that it’s OK to let others help out.
5. Resist the urge to offer simplistic platitudes. The dictionary defines a platitude as a “banal, trite or stale remark.” Resist any urge to reassure your wife with trite statements such as you’ll be just fine, don’t worry or everything is going to be OK. Those statements are not helpful because they may indicate to your wife you’re not able to think about cancer in realistic ways. As a result, she may feel she can’t confide her deepest feelings with you. Statements, which are always helpful and hopeful, include I’m with you in this all the way, together we can see this through and I will support you unconditionally.
6. Get yourself some support. Being the primary caregiver for your partner can tax you physically, mentally and emotionally. That’s why it’s important for you to find a friend or two who will be there for you and with you. Be aware, however, not every guy in your circle can do this. Edward Lichty, whose wife’s breast cancer meant nine months of treatment shares his experience, “My friends are great but honestly, most of them were pretty tongue tied during Kelly’s treatment. I know they wanted to help but I also know they didn’t have any idea what to do.” However, he had one friend, Graham who stepped up. “He called and emailed a lot. He tracked our progress. He didn’t disappear once treatment got going. He was really interested in the day to day reality of what we were going through and was comfortable enough in our friendship to ask.” Lichty learned from Graham’s support. He knows how to provide support to a friend whose wife is dealing with cancer. “I will be present. I will show an interest in the details of what cancer is like for him and his wife. I will stop in during chemo treatments, call him while his wife is in surgery, track him down at work to get an update and make plans to do some celebrating with him after it’s all over.”
VICTOR M. PARACHIN is a freelance writer living in Oklahoma.