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When Your Wife has Breast Cancer

separator 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 suggestions:

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.
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