When Your Wife has Breast Cancer
Being the partner of anyone who has cancer can be a rough
road at times. You want to be there for that person, supportive, understanding
and empathetic. You want to be as helpful as you can be. That’s the same for
all couples who experience cancer. But there’s an extra dimension when a woman
has breast cancer, especially if she’s had a mastectomy.
Even though we all know logically that a woman is still the
same person whether she has her breasts or not, the truth is that to many
people, breasts are symbols of femininity, the very nature of womanhood and
motherhood. Women often go through a kind of grieving process when their
breasts are removed, or are even altered in appearance.
For men, all of this can be especially uncomfortable. They
want to do what’s best, but they simply don’t always know what that is. A new
book by Marc Silver, an editor for U.S. News and World Report, provides
husbands with a helpful guide on how to navigate many of the difficult issues
that arise when women have breast cancer. Here are just a few of his
Go to doctor’s
appointments when possible
This is a big way to show her you want to “be there” for
her. Juggle your schedule when you can for her. Take notes while you’re there.
This can be helpful when you get home and need to discuss what happened.
Discuss how you can
be helpful (without taking over)
Breast cancer often changes the roles that couples have had.
Women, often the caregivers, become the person who needs care. Many women feel
uncomfortable with this, worrying that it takes away their importance.
It’s a good idea for men to realize that their help is
needed, but it’s also important not to take over. Ask which of the chores she
normally does that she would like you to take over—but do ask. She can’t do it
all right now.
Realize you can’t fix
it; listen well
It’s been discussed in lots of popular books in the past
years that women often want to simply discuss a problem, while men think
they’re supposed to fix it. Really, what women often want is someone who
listens to them. It’s no different when they have breast cancer.
If your wife tells you she’s scared or nervous or sad, that
can be uncomfortable. But the worst thing you can do is say, “Hey, what are you
worried about? Everything’s going to be fine!”
A response like that tends to minimize her feelings, even
though certainly that’s not your intention. Instead, it’s always best to let
her know you hear what she’s saying. Something like, “I understand that this is
hard, I really do. Is there anything I can do to help?”
In fact, there may not always be something you can do to help, besides
listening and taking your cues from her. That can be hard to live with.
Silver, M. Breast Cancer Husband. Rodale Books,
September 2004; The New York Times, “Travel Companion on the Breast Cancer
Journey,” Health and Science Section, 9 November 2004.