Love her tender
When breast cancer strikes the woman in his life, a man needs a crash course in caregiving
When I was 49 years old, I got a new job that I didn't really want. My wife, Marsha, was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer--a tumor in each breast--and I became a breast cancer husband.
Like any new job, this one came with a heap of unfamiliar responsibilities. I had to figure out what to do when Marsha was walking around like a zombie in mourning: Cheer her up? Commiserate? Keep silent and hope the mood would pass? I also had to reassure our kids that everything would be OK, even when I wasn't sure it would be.
I had to find a helpful role to play in the doctor's office so I wasn't just sitting there like a dumb lug while my wife investigated her treatment options.
As the weeks went by, new tasks kept landing on my overloaded plate: Help her cope with the pending loss of her hair to chemotherapy. Comfort her when she was afraid. And, oh yes, maintain some sort of physical intimacy so our relationship would stay strong.
Slammed. I'm not complaining. My wife had a far more difficult path than I did. She was the one who would suffer the assaults of the anticancer treatments: lumpectomies, chemotherapy, and radiation. But there I was, by her side: distraught, clueless, and in shock. Former NFL star Chris Spielman remembers his reaction back in 1998 when he learned that his 30-year-old wife, Stefanie, had breast cancer. He felt as if Mark McGwire had slammed him in the head with a baseball bat. He went for a baseball image, he said, because he was trying to imagine the world's most powerful knockout punch.
The medical community recognizes the critical role a husband can play in helping his wife cope with the stress of a breast cancer diagnosis and the treatments that follow--and how much help he needs. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a $1.1 million grant to Men Against Breast Cancer, an educational group, to develop instructional programs for husbands. The pilot program begins this fall, but for now most men are on their own when it comes to cancer caregiving.
Men may mean well, but they tend to jump to the wrong conclusion. The No. 1 wrong conclusion: They think a caregiver has to fix things. "You can't find the solution or rescue the fair maiden," says Carol Stevenson, 56, of Arlington, Va., a five-year survivor. But that doesn't mean the spouse is helpless. Carol needed her husband, Phil Gay, to be there with her. Not to solve her problems or to conquer cancer but to stand by her side and to accept her as she was. "The most important thing for me was to know it was all right to be sick and not beautiful, and not the epitome of femininity. He was always there to hold me if I needed to be held or to talk to me if I needed to talk. I was very grateful for that."