I remember only too well the day my wife found out she had breast cancer. And I remember only too well what an idiot I was when she told me.
Let me give you a little background. On the last week in August 2001, my wife, Marsha, had a mammogram that showed a suspicious finding. She’d had many a suspicious reading before, and it was always a false alarm. So when she went to the radiologist for a callback, she wasn’t nervous. Neither was I.
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. Really, it was much easier on me. And much harder on Marsha, who was left wondering, “Did I call the wrong husband?” I wish I knew then what I know now. Let me give you a few tips, learned from bitter experience and personal screw-ups, on how to support your wife or girlfriend after a cancer diagnosis.
Tip #1: Be there. Man, my wife was so mad at me for not coming straight home from work. What was I thinking? 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.”
Tip #2: Shut up and listen (also known as the breast cancer husband’s motto). Ask her how she’s feeling. Listen empathetically. That’s therapeutic for the patient. Even if she feels lousy. Then ask her what she wants you to do to help. And follow orders.
Tip #3: Be her appointment pal. 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: Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Chemo before or after surgery? What kind of chemo? Your job is to go with her. Hold her hand in the waiting room. (One study shows that hand-holding reduces stress!) 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. And help her keep track of questions she wants to ask. My wife and I used to come up with a list before the doctor’s visit. 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.
Tip #5: Don’t tell her what to do. Husbands want to protect their family. So many a guy feels he should make decisions for his wife regarding treatment. Don’t do that! She must make choices that make sense to her and her medical team. Your job is to be her sounding board. She may ask, “Do you like this doctor?” Or “What do you think about this surgical option?” Be honest. But don’t be hurt if she doesn’t take your advice. It’s like at work. You give your boss your best ideas. The boss listens. And then the boss does what the boss wants to do. And I don’t have to tell you who’s the boss when it comes to breast cancer.
Tip #6: Try to laugh. It took weeks after Marsha’s diagnosis to recover our ability to chortle. We went wig shopping in a salon catering to cancer patients. I saw boxes of really big wigs. “Honey, would you mind trying one on?” I ventured. Marsha was a sport. Suddenly, she was Dolly Parton! We cracked up. The other customers must have thought that guy and his wife are nuts, cackling like fiends. But for the first time since diagnosis, we felt like ourselves again.
Marc Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond (http://www.breastcancerhusband.com/).
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