These tips for helping your wife cope with a cancer diagnosis are from two “breast cancer husbands.” One, Marc Silver, interviewed other husbands whose wives had breast cancer.
“Men have an irresistible urge to ‘fix things,’” says Silver, author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond. “But as a caregiver you can’t ‘fix’ cancer or other diseases. Nor can you ‘fix’ other problems caused by aging.”
How can men – especially “fix it” guys and problem solvers – help their wives with breast cancer, dementia, or other illnesses? First, by reading all they can about cancer treatments, helping women fight cancer, and getting help with caregiving.
Here, two husbands share their experience of taking care of their wives with breast cancer – and offer ways husbands can help wives cope…
When Your Wife Has Cancer – A “How to” Guide for Husbands
Listen to your wife with both ears
Silver says the best thing to do for men who are caregivers is to “shut up and listen.” Pay attention to what your wife or loved one is asking for – and don’t assume you know better!
John W. Anderson, author of Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men, adds “You need to stop talking at her, or even with her. Just listen to her without trying to talk her out of her feelings or solve her problems. Mirror her mood.”
Anderson also encourages husbands to follow their wives’ lead (for example, if your wife just wants to sit and stare out the window, then sit quietly with her). “You, as her caregiver, need to be there to support her in any way you can.”
Think carefully before telling your wife how scared you are
“In the community of therapists, the bias is toward ‘self-disclosure,’” says Silver. “In other words, share your emotions. Don’t keep them inside. But many women told me that they wouldn’t have wanted to hear how scared their husbands were by the breast cancer diagnosis. My own wife said that if I’d told her how frightened I was (and I was pretty scared at the start), she’d have thought I knew something she didn’t know.”
Sometimes it can be a kindness for a guy to keep his feelings inside, or confide them to a very close friend. With time, his fear may lessen. And sometimes it’s perfectly fine for a guy to say, “I’m scared, too” — as long as he adds, “But you have wonderful doctors and I believe them when they say your odds for a successful treatment are good.”
Show your love with physical affection
If your wife likes affection, show her your love with kisses, caresses, hugs and hand squeezes. Your wife needs you to be there for her physically, to help her feel safe and protected.
“She might fear you – her husband – might consider leaving her,” says Anderson. “She’s deeply worried about what you’ll think about her physically, may be afraid you’ll think she’s damaged goods.”
Being physically affectionate and loving will help assuage her fears and make her feel beautiful again.
Go ahead…cry! It’s normal and healthy to feel sad if your wife has cancer
“I remember driving on the Sunday after my wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer, listening to Ray Charles on the radio,” says Silver. “Then I heard these weird noises – I couldn’t figure out for a second what was happening. It turned out it was the sound of my sobs. I was crying uncontrollably, driving to the hardware store.”
Silver says he interviewed many men for his book who also cried in their cars. It can be a safe place to express feelings openly and honestly. “A good cry can make you feel better,” he says. “It can decrease caregiver stress and relieve the tension of all those emotions building up inside.” So, husbands, start your engines – and your tear ducts.
Don’t be a “Lone Ranger”
Anderson recommends encouraging family and friends to rally around your wife to help her fight the disease. Don’t forget to get support for yourself, as well! Ways to support yourself include joining a cancer support group, learning how to help your kids cope with mom’s cancer, being aware of signs of caregiver burnout, and reading books and finding resources to help you cope as a “breast cancer husband.”
Talk about your struggles, your emotions, how you’re balancing your work and home lives. And, be open to considering hiring help for caregiving responsibilities. Husbands can be as good as – or better than – any other caregivers out there! But, no good caregiver can be supportive and helpful if he goes at it alone.
Husbands, if you need help taking care of your wives, read How to Hire a Caregiver – Tips for Family Members.
If you have any comments or questions about husbands helping women with cancer, please comment below…
I'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello below - I can't give relationship advice, but writing can bring you clarity and insight.