Breast Cancer: Getting Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Treatment

You’re watching the nightly news and everyone’s talking about a big brewing storm. Only nobody can say exactly when it’ll hit–or how much damage it will do. That’s how I felt when Marsha started treatment for breast cancer. How will the surgery go? What will her recovery be like? Will chemotherapy wipe her out? And what about radiation?

I wanted answers! But I got surprises.

Sometimes things go better than expected. After surgery, the drain implanted under Marsha’s armpit to siphon off lymphatic fluid seemed as if it were ready to come out after just a few days. Yay! Sometimes, things go worse than expected. Whoops, the drain came out too soon, fluid built up under her armpit, and she was in horrible pain. Boo!

Needless to say, this lack of certainty is very bad news for control freaks like me. But here are a few things that helped me cope as my wife endured her triathlon of treatments:

Pick up a few toys and devices. Bring them to pass the time while your wife is having surgery. A laptop, a book, papers from work, an iPod. Whatever will help you cope as the minutes tick away. One husband told me he brought a book on nautical knots and some rope to the hospital while his wife was having her double mastectomy and reconstruction. Tying those knots helped keep him from feeling as if he were all tied up in knots.

Get a timeframe for surgery. Don’t just head into the waiting room with no idea of what will transpire. Ask the surgeon how long your wife will be in surgery. The surgeon will come out after the procedure is over to tell you how it went. Then you’ll have to wait some more, until she’s in the recovery room. If you think too much time has gone by (for me, that was the 90-minute mark), go to the volunteer in the waiting room desk and say politely, “I’m wondering how my wife is doing and when I can see her.”

Don’t even try to predict how chemo will go. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you do. Every patient reacts differently. There is typically a 24-hour grace period from the time of infusion to the time of feeling like crap. Some women bounce back fairly quickly. Others have a harder time with chemo-related side effects. But keep in mind: The first treatment is very stressful–it’s a plunge into the unknown. And in many cases, the patient is worn down a bit more by each infusion. So be extremely empathetic. If your wife craves ginger candies on a freezing February night, put on your coat and go get them.

Don’t even try to predict how radiation will go. I have met women who said radiation was more taxing than chemo–they had painful burns from their daily zap. But many women–including my wife–sailed through with no problems.

Rely on the kindness of friends. If people offer to make dinner, let them. And the week you’ll need the most support is the week following a chemo infusion, when your wife will probably feel pretty lousy.

Take a break. Otherwise you’ll end up being an exhausted and cranky caregiver. I’d ask Marsha’s permission to go out of the house for running, biking, and yoga classes. When out-of-town friends wanted to know what would be helpful to send us, I’d say, “Something to make us laugh.” I was thrilled to get a collection of greatest stories from The Onion. While Marsha was dozing in a chemo daze, I had a lot of laughs.

Make a date–with your wife. Marsha and I went away to a spa (I thought it was a bad idea to risk a trip after her second chemo, but she had a fast recovery and we had a great time). We went to the movies (my only rule: no four-hankie flicks). We even dined out. Really, any time we got out of the house was a boon for both of us, because in every corner of the house there were reminders of cancer.

Get her flowers. I bought Marsha a beautiful bouquet on every chemo day. This earned me tremendous husband brownie points for being sensitive and romantic. Plus, looking at the blooms made us both happy. Being a frugal New Englander, Marsha would always ask, “How much did you pay for those?” I never told!

Marc Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond.

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By Marc Silver, from Intent


Ron A.
Ron A9 years ago

What a sweet guy! Being good to her during this very trying time is critical. I do think that there is another thing which is frequently overlooked. Knowledge.

When my wife first self-diagnosed a problem, she began studying and reading about natural healing and prevention methods. She read books and I researched her questions on the internet. She seriously studied Dr. Jane? Plant, whose position was avoid all cow's milk and milk products, including cheese and yogurt. She learned to avoid all animal products which might have been hormone injected, or even include hormones (all milk would include natural hormones). She also learned that the same thing applied to prostate cancers in men. So we agreed to go on a modified vegetarian diet, which eliminated all red meat and poultry. We could eat fish, but most of our protein was vegetable based. She spent a lot of time after her surgery refining her knowledge base and teaching me about needed life style changes. She refused chemotherapy and radiation, believing that the treatment would be more harmful than helpful in her case. She did take a medicine for a while, but didn't continue it more than a year (started with an A, like Aramicit or something). We continued on our life style changes for about 5 years, and now she will occasionally eat a dish with sour cream or other milk product when we eat out (rarely done). My point is that knowledge can be very helpful, but even more so when both partners learn together.