How not to be a Hapless Husband
Clues for the caregivers
Fort Wayne, Indiana (June 8, 2009) — The woman you love has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I bumbled through the nine months of treatment and learned from my mistakes. Marsha is today in good health. And she’s almost forgiven me for my bad beginning.
The truth is, all those feelings, and more, come into play. Believe me, I know. One Friday my wife went to the doctor for a callback mammogram because an earlier reading wasn’t clear. Afterward, a blunt radiologist said to her, “Sure looks like cancer to me.” Marsha called me at work. My response: “Ew, that doesn’t sound good.” (What can I say—it didn’t!). We talked about what would happen next. Then I said, “See you tonight honey,” hung up the phone, and stayed at work all day. I was a) Scared, b) Confused, c) Hopeless, d) Helpless and also in deep denial.
Let me tell you a few of the things I learned from this experience, and from writing a book to help other clueless guys like me.
Crying in the car is normal. I did it and thought I was crazy. Turns out there are a lot of car criers out there. “That’s my ‘feel sorry for Randy’ time,” one husband told me. And, he says, it made him feel better. You will err. There are no perfect husbands, and there certainly are no perfect cancer caregivers. Just remember these words: “I’m sorry.” And: “How can I make it up to you?”
Go to the doctor with your wife. Sitting next to Marsha snapped me out of denial. I took notes—a useful role, since shell-shocked cancer patients often forget much of what a doctor says. I kept a list of questions Marsha wanted to ask. I held her hand—maybe the most important thing of all.
Be your wife’s sounding board. She may ask for advice about treatment options. Tell her what you think. That can help her make her decisions. Don’t feel bad if she ignores your suggestions.
In the world of breast cancer, she’s definitely the boss. If your wife asks, “How would you feel if your privates were going to be cut off?” try not to take it personally. That’s what my wife said after I reassured her: “I’ll love you even if you have a mastectomy.” The blunt comment is a reminder that no man can truly understand what it’s like to face the loss of a breast.
Learn to listen. You don’t have to “fix it.” Just lend a sympathetic ear and offer words of assurance, like “No matter what happens, you know I’m going to be there.” Another woman just wanted to hear, “Yup, cancer really sucks.”
Optimism can’t cure cancer. Stop cheerleading! Your wife doesn’t have to be upbeat all the time. In one study, women who let out all their emotions coped better with the stress of treatment than those who didn’t become emotional.Ask for help. Try to go it alone and you’ll end up cranky and exhausted.
Chemotherapy is unpredictable. Some women respond better than others; one session may leave your wife exhausted while she might bounce back quickly from another. Resign yourself to an unpredictable couple of months. Intercourse is not impossible. As my wife’s oncologist said, “You can maintain intimacy during chemotherapy.” Not always—chemo drugs can dampen libido and cause vaginal dryness. Lubricants help. If she’s not in the mood, massage her feet, rub her back, cuddle up—they’re simple ways to keep a physical connection.
Hair loss is hard. Some women told me chemo baldness was more distressing than losing a breast. What do you say if your wife asks your opinion of her naked figure? One husband’s answer: “You look beautiful to me.”
Sneak in some fun. Cancer lurks in every corner of the house. A night out or a weekend getaway, if your wife is up to it, can offer a needed escape.
When treatment is over, things don’t exactly go back to normal. “It’s not something you can wrap up in a box and say, “It’s gone,” one woman told me. The good news: The two of you have a chance at what experts call “post-traumatic growth.” “Problems at work aren’t important in the same way,” one husband explained.
Relationships can deepen. Marsha knows I will always be there for her. I’ve also learned that the key to being a good caregiver is also the key to a good marriage: “Shut up and listen.”
Marc Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. Rodale Books, 2004.