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When Your Wife Has Breast Cancer

Five things you can do to support your spouse

by Rene Barrat-Gordon, LISW-S

Breast Cancer image

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, her spouse needs to know how to support her emotionally while also caring for his own needs. Here are five things you can do to support your wife during breast cancer treatment.

Listen Try to be nonjudgmental toward your wife’s feelings and fears. When a husband says, “Don’t worry; everything is going to be fine,” it minimizes his wife’s feelings. If you don’t know what to say, it is better to say nothing and just listen.

Offer to go with your wife to doctor’s appointments, but let her take the lead. Discuss with her ahead of time what your role will be. Ask her if she is comfortable with you asking the doctor questions or if she wants you to just take notes while she asks the questions. Remember, your wife is in charge. However, if having more information will help you, you can ask your wife for permission to call the medical team on your own.

Let Go of the Need to Control Everything
Many times, husbands want to take charge and fix the situation. Naturally, some spousal roles will be temporarily changed, yet it is important to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Don’t “smother-mother” your wife by ordering her to slow down or rest, or asking her all the time if she’s okay.

Let your wife know that she is still beautiful and that you love her.

Author of Article photo

Rene Barrat-Gordon

Once again, let your wife take the lead. Ask her what you can do to help. (I also tell women with cancer not to assume their spouse is a mind reader.) If you don’t understand what your wife needs, ask her again so that both of you are on the same page.

Accept Offers of Help
Many times people will offer help with meals, rides, shopping, and other tasks. Talk with your spouse about what types of outside help would be best for both of you, and then accept those offers. To stay organized, keep a family calendar in a central place. That way you’ll be able to schedule outside help around your family’s needs.

You’ll find that many people are interested in your wife’s well-being, but sometimes the constant calls and e-mails can be tiring for both of you. Ask your partner whether she wants you to set up a phone tree or a CaringBridge website (www.caringbridge.com) to keep family and friends informed. Find out if she wants you to be the family reporter or if another person should fill that role. Make sure the decision is workable for both of you.

Take Care of Yourself
You cannot provide support to your wife if you feel burnt out. You need to take time for exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest. You may also find journaling or talking with a close friend, a counselor, a minister, or a rabbi helpful. Don’t feel guilty if you need to take some time for yourself. Many times a wife will feel she is a burden if her spouse gives up too much in order to take care of her.

Be Honest
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own feelings. It is okay to cry in front of your wife. Women with breast cancer want to know what their spouses are feeling.

They also want to be told the truth. If your wife asks you to go with her to pick out a wig, be honest with your opinion – or suggest a friend who has better taste than you do.

Let your wife know that she is still beautiful and that you love her. It is important for both of you to talk about your sexual needs. If she is fatigued, intimacy may at times be pushed aside. Be patient and flexible.

Knowing how best to cope with the emotional impact of your wife’s cancer diagnosis will make you better equipped to support her during this difficult time.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Rene Barrat-Gordon is an oncology social worker in the Breast Cancer Program at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute in Cleveland, OH.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2010.