Men in Cancerland – How to help her cope

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – most commonly attributed to the care of women – but many already know that. We’ve been taught about the risk factors of breast cancer since before puberty, and how important early detection and preventative measures can be. It is even common knowledge that having no family history does not guarantee immunity. But what do we know about the main caregiver of a woman going through breast cancer treatment – the male support system?

For many men, the role of caregiver is unfamiliar. What should a man say, for example, when he first learns of her diagnosis? Should he go to doctor appointments with her? Will he still find her attractive if she has to have a mastectomy?

He may question whether he has what it takes to be there for her, or if he will have any normalcy to his life. Selfish as it may seem, these are completely valid and fairly common concerns that any caregiver faces.

There are no guarantees that a man, or anyone for that matter, will act or react appropriately when faced with every family’s most feared scenario. However, with a few tips and some resources to point you in the right direction, navigating “Cancerland” might be a little easier to manage.

To start off with, here are 11 recommended actions by Marc Silver, author of “Breast Cancer Husband,” that a man should NOT say to his wife or girlfriend when she tells him about her diagnosis.

  1. I thought you were healthy when I married you.
  2. Is that the bad kind of cancer?
  3. Do you want to stop and shop for a new car? (Asked in one instance on the way home from doctor’s office.)
  4. Cheer up: Your survival odds are 85%
  5. Isn’t it kind of like a root canal?
  6. You’ve got your mother and sisters – you don’t need me.
  7. Can you delay your mastectomy until sailing season is over?
  8. It’s the bottom of the ninth, there are two outs, but we’re going to hit this ball out of the park.
  9. What do I tell my friends?
  10. I don’t want to just make out with you – guys like to finish what they start.
  11. Why are you complaining about losing your hair? That wig looks better than your real hair!

According to Marc Silver, these are actual statements made by husbands after being told their wife had breast cancer. Not their proudest moments, obviously. Silver said that these types of immature comments stem from frustration about not being able to fix the cancer, or awkwardness from not knowing what to say.

The best thing Silver recommends to do is “to hold her and tell her you’ll be there for her. Let her tell you how cancer sucks” with no more of a response than to agree with her. While it is important for the husband to empathize with her and comfort her, remember not to do it with sports analogies.

Another question a male caregiver might have is whether or not to let her know that he is scared about her prognosis. Silver cautioned that in his research, many women said “they wouldn’t have wanted to hear how scared their husbands were by the cancer diagnosis.” His own wife added that “she’d have thought [he] knew something she didn’t know.” Instead, confide that specific information to a close friend. Other emotions can and should be shared with your wife, but fear is not one that will be helpful to her recovery.

Surprisingly, humor can be a helpful tool. Psychologist Sharon Manne of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia pointed out that “couples who laughed at cancer coped better with the stress of treatment.” Silver advised to “stick to your style as a couple. If the two of you traded gentle jokes before cancer, keep it up. If a joke doesn’t work, apologize and move on. And remember, if humor doesn’t help, flowers always do.”

More often than not, a husband’s presence at the doctor’s office will be something his wife might appreciate. However, keep in mind that it is HER appointment and she is in charge. Be there as a support to her. Prompt her to ask questions you know were on her mind. Take notes about important information the doctor provides. Hold her hand and be a calming presence.

Staying positive for his wife is essential to providing the necessary support, but this may be easier said than done. John W. Anderson, author of “Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men,” advised to “get away from Cancerland” when you feel overwhelmed.

Anderson’s experience with cancer is perhaps greater than most. He found himself the support and caregiver of four women in his life – his mom, his wife, his sister, and his mom’s close friend. He knows a thing or two about coping.

“Whether golfing or having a beer with a friend, you need a reprieve. You can’t be on all the time,” explained Anderson. In addition, he recommends being honest by talking to friends and family members, as well as accepting help from them when they offer it.

Nobody is eager to jump into the role of caregiver to someone with Cancer. However, if you find yourself entering that domain, don’t be afraid to seek the advice of a friend or a therapist. In addition, take advantage of the resources that are available and geared specifically toward men.

Books (some available in e-format):

  • Breast Cancer Husband by Mark Silver
  • Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men by John W. Anderson
  • For the Women We Love: A Breast Cancer Action Plan and Caregivers Guide for Men by Matthew J. Loscalzo, MSW with Mark Heyison
  • It’s Not Rocket Science: A Guy’s Blueprint to Caregiving by Marc Heyison