What Can You Do as Her Husband?
A Breast Cancer Guide for Men
by John W. Anderson
The first thing you can do is – nothing.
Huh? Doing nothing goes against every fiber of our being as men. We operate, quite well actually, when the rules of engagement apply: take business, sports, and war as three great examples. We have a mission, we make a game plan, and we execute. We seem to have a burning need to get things done – close a deal, wash the car, develop a new software program, pay the bills, run three miles on the treadmill in under thirty minutes. We’re supposed to be doing something, always, all the time. And with breast cancer, there’s so much that needs to be done – medical treatment decisions and scheduling; how and what to tell to family, friends and coworkers, and bosses; detailed conversations with insurance companies; and financial planning.
Well, all of this, and much more, needs to wait – for her. That’s because you need to let her take the lead on what happens next, and when it happens. Nothing happens until she decides it is time to make something happen. The reason for this is simple: it’s her body and her life that are under siege. Take your lead from her actions, not the other way around. The key here is to react, not act.
Your primary focus, as her husband, is to be there, physically and emotionally, in her moment of need. Never in your life will you have to show as much patience and restraint as at this moment of her initial diagnosis. Everything about who and what she is has been placed under severe attack. Her femininity has not only been called into question but is under threat of complete obliteration. Your role here is to remind her that everything is going to be okay and that you are there, just for her.
Never in your life will you have to show as much patience and restraint as at this moment of her initial diagnosis.
You are now the primary caregiver for her. Back when you first agreed to be her husband, you promised to be a caregiver if she ever got sick. Your wedding vows most likely said that you would be there for her, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ‘til death do us part.”
How, then, do you begin to start taking care of your wife? Easy. Listen. Listen. Listen.
You need to stop talking at her, or even with her, and just listen to her. Mirror her mood. If she wants to laugh, laugh with her. If she wants to cry and be afraid, comfort her and don’t minimize her fear. If she’s angry, validate that anger, and agree with her that this cancer thing really sucks. Watch for her emotions and follow them where they lead. But don’t react to her emotions and cause conflict. Hear what she’s worried about, what she is scared of, and what she needs from you. Only offer your opinion if, and when, she asks for it.
Your wife needs to feel wanted. The best way to make her feel wanted is to show her affection. If that affection gets more intimate, that’s fine, too. It’s good for her to know that you are still sexually attracted to her, but you shouldn’t put any pressure on her at this time if she’s not in the mood. You especially have to follow her lead when it comes to the bedroom. She needs to know you are there for her – as you promised you would be when you said those hallowed words, “for better or worse.”
When you’ve convinced her that you are there for her, that you will be there for her, be sure to give her plenty of time with family and friends. Women are much better communicators than men. She is going to need to share her feelings and fears with others besides you, so give her that time and space to have those talks. Make your home a welcoming place for friends and family and help them show their support for your wife (provided, of course, this is what she wants). And if you sense that she wants private time with someone, be aware of that and quietly excuse yourself before she has to ask you to leave the room.
Your physical presence is important after diagnosis, especially when it comes to medical appointments. That’s because four ears are better than two – always. She may not always hear all of what’s being said, or necessarily understand everything. When you listen to the doctor, really listen, you’ll probably hear information that she didn’t that will be helpful to her later when she’s thinking out her options.
When you go with her to see a doctor, take along a notebook to write down everything that you hear during each visit. If you aren’t a good note-taker, then have your loved one ask the doctor if you can bring along a tape recorder. If the doctor says no, respect that decision. The last thing that you want is to have the doctor-patient relationship begin on a rocky start. There are a large number of medical decisions that need to be made. When you mix the emotions and stress that you and your wife are feeling in with the tsunami of information that the two of you are receiving, some of it naturally gets jumbled. Note-taking helps to eliminate this problem.
The bottom line is this: you need to be there for her, whenever and however she needs you. Let her know that you not only love her the same way as you did before the diagnosis, but more so. It’s also important to tell her that you are still physically attracted to her as much as you were before she was diagnosed. Your mission is to protect and defend her femininity, and how she feels about herself as a woman. Your wife must know, on a deep emotional level, that she is your one and only. In other words, she is and always will be your trophy wife. You must become your wife’s biggest cheerleader.
You are riding on an emotional roller coaster. She, meanwhile, is aboard an emotional rocket ship. You are her rudder, and that rudder needs to be steady and true. The time has arrived for you to be her Mr. Big – being there, for her, for whatever she needs, whenever she needs it. This is not the time to be running off to the office, gym, or bar. This is the time to be a grown man, a real man, which means being her caregiver.
Her world, and yours, has been completely altered by this diagnosis. Nonetheless, many wives act like things are normal in order to keep some semblance of control over their lives. Continue to ask if there is something more you can do, even if it is the fourth, fifth, or sixth time you ask.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
John W. Anderson is an Emmy-nominated director for Lifetime Television’s Stop Breast Cancer for Life campaign and a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Nation, and many other publications. He has helped his mother, wife, sister, and a close friend in their battles against breast cancer. He lives in Roanoke, VA.
Excerpted with permission from Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men © 2010 John W. Anderson. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, www.amacombooks.org, a Division of the American Management Association.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.