What Do You Say to A Breast Cancer Husband? “Shut Up and Listen!”

Editors’ Note: Marc Silver is a big believer in the breast cancer husband’s motto: “Shut up and listen.”

Marc’s wife, Marsha Dale, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. Today, Marsha is in good health. Marc was a typical clueless husband, and he went looking for a book to help him out. When he couldn’t find one, he wrote it himself, using the skills he’d gained in his career as a journalist. Marc is the author of “Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond.”

Both cancer experts and husbands have praised the book as an important contribution to the literature of breast cancer. Marc has been interviewed about his book on the Weekend Today Show, NPR’s Morning Edition, CNN, and the Diane Rehm Show. Since the book’s publication, Marc has been in demand as a speaker at breast cancer events, cancer hospitals and other public forums. In 2007, Marc was named a Yoplait Champion for his “extraordinary efforts in the fight against breast cancer.”

I’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of my debut as a clueless breast cancer husband.

I can’t believe it’s been more than ten years since my wife called me to tell me that a very blunt radiologist had said to her, “Looks like cancer to me.” And I responded, “Ew, that doesn’t sound good.” And stayed at work all day rather than rush home into a new world where I had no idea what I was supposed to do or say.

In those tense days after Marsha’s diagnosis, and in the year of treatment that followed, I learned many lessons. And I keep on learning them as the years go by. Marsha and I are both grateful that she is today in good health. But as any cancer survivor knows, there are scares and there are flashbacks. And as any breast cancer husband knows, you just have to step up to the challenge.

Here are eight pieces of advice I wish someone had shared with me on the day my wife told me the news.

Be there. If ever your wife needed you by her side, it’s at that moment when the diagnosis comes. She needs you to hold her hand, to tell her you’ll be there every step of the way. You can tell her you’re scared, too, if you want to, but reassure her that your fear won’t get in the way of your caregiving.

Shut up and listen. Guys, you can’t fix it! You can’t cure cancer. The best thing you can do is to pay attention to what your wife wants. If she’s not telling you, then ask. Now we all know that guys don’t like to ask for directions, and with GPS, now we don’t have to! But this is one case where we have to swallow our macho pride and say, “Honey, what can I do for you.” It might be something as simple as a back rub or as profound as telling her how much you love her.

Be her appointment pal. Every patient needs someone at the doctor’s office. Keep a list of questions for her to ask (but don’t ask them for her, just remind her as the clock is ticking of any unresolved concerns). Take notes or run a tape recorder (with the doctor’s okay) so you can review any key points. And remember, you know her better than the doctor does. When a surgeon told my wife he could tell she would always worry unless she had a double mastectomy, I asked her after the appointment if that were true. And it wasn’t true at all – she just looked gobsmacked because who wouldn’t after a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer. And we learned from another surgeon we saw that, in Marsha’s case, lumpectomy plus radiation gave the same survival benefit as mastectomy would.

Laughter helps! If you and your wife joked around Before Cancer, then keep it up! During months of cancer-triggered celibacy, one husband said to his wife, “We have oral sex – we talk about it!” It’s funny because it’s true!

And speaking of sex … yes, you can be intimate during the months of treatment. If you’re in the mood, ask your wife how she’s feeling. If chemo has dampened her libido, well, as my wife would put it, “Too bad for you!” P.S. A nice foot massage or back rub is a way of staying connected during those times when she’s not in the mood.

You can’t do it all. Caregivers need a break. Just ask your wife for permission to take a bike ride, go out with some friends or lie on the couch watching the game!

Your job as a breast cancer husband doesn’t end when treatment ends. This is one tricky disease. After treatment, your wife may be physically exhausted, stressed out, and afraid. Such concerns may diminish as time goes by, but the fear of recurrence can crop up at unexpected moments – on the eve of a checkup, if an acquaintance or celebrity is diagnosed. So what does a breast cancer husband do?

See number 2 above: Shut up and listen!

The information found here is not intended to provide nor should it be interpreted to provide professional medical, legal or financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information.

Category: Experts Speak

Tags: Breast Cancer Husband, CancerForward, CancerForward Expert Article, caregiving, laughter, libido, macho pride, Marc Silver