The following is a guest post from our own John Anderson, author of Stand By Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men. Be sure to check out his new website, StandByHer.org, an excellent resource for any man who needs help in overcoming the fears and frustrations of seeing your loved ones diagnosed with breast cancer. The website is also a fantastic resource for women interested in gaining perspective. John Anderson and his wife, Sharon Rapoport, will also be appearing on The Today Show on Thursday, October 8th. Please tune in.
What Can You Do When a Woman You Love Gets Breast Cancer?
Caregiver Advice for Caring Men
What Can You Do as Her Husband?
Listen. Stop talking at her, or even with her, and just listen to her. Mirror her mood. If she wants to cry, comfort her. If she’s angry, agree that this cancer thing stinks. Tune into her emotions. Hear what she’s worried about, what she’s scared of, and what she needs from you. Offer your opinion only if, and when, she asks for it.
Be affectionate. 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. However, if she’s not in the mood to go beyond holding hands, you shouldn’t put any pressure on her in the bedroom.
Wait. You feel useless if you’re not doing something, especially when it comes to your wife having breast cancer. There’s so much that needs to be done—medical treatment decisions and scheduling; detailed conversations with coworkers, bosses, and insurance companies; and more. All of this needs to wait—for her. You need to let your wife take the lead. Nothing happens until she decides it is time to make something happen. It’s her body and her life that is under siege. As her husband, your primary focus is to be there, physically and emotionally, in her moment of need. So whatever she does, it’s your job to react, not act.
Respect her need for private time with others. Once you’ve convinced her that you are and will be there for her, give her plenty of time alone with others. She is going to need to share her feelings and fears with people besides you. Give her the time, space, and privacy she needs to talk with family members, her friends, colleagues and mentors. Quietly excuse yourself before she has to ask you to leave the room.
Help her to listen to and understand her doctors. Four ears are better than two when it comes to medical appointments. When you listen to the doctor, really listen. You’ll probably hear information that she didn’t, and 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 and write down the key points and everything that could be important.
What Can You Do as Her Father?
Be her daddy. A woman facing breast cancer is scared. Back when she was a little girl, when she got scared, she turned to you for assurance that everything was going to be all right. Now that things aren’t, she needs you once again. If you and your daughter are geographically separated, set up a regular time to check in with her on the telephone or for an online chat. Fathers need to be a fountain of positive energy.
Don’t treat her like she’s still a kid. Your little girl is an adult now. As the father of a woman battling breast cancer, your role is to listen, to offer comfort, and at all costs, avoid leading the discussion about her disease and telling her what to do. It is your love, support, and presence she is looking for, not your direction.
What Can You Do as Her Son?
Put her needs first. Your mother has spent her life taking care of everyone else. She will tell you that she doesn’t want anyone to worry about her. She will tell you that she wants you to go on with your life and leave her be, because she’ll be fine. Don’t let her fool you. Your mom needs her boy, right there beside her, showering her with love and affection.
Pitch in without being asked and without arguing. Doing little things will make a world of difference to her. Don’t offer to clean up around the house, shop for groceries, or fold the laundry. Just do it. And keep doing it, even when she complains. Your mom’s criticism comes from her frustration that breast cancer has taken away control of her life. So, let her have control. If she reverts to treating you like a young boy, be a man and don’t fight back.
Respect her decisions about her treatment. It’s alright to ask your mom about her diagnosis, and what her doctors recommend doing. It’s fine for you to help her research her condition to determine the best course of treatment. Just don’t tell her what she has to do, or not do. As a son, your role is to be supportive, not commanding, and to be there for her.
What Can You Do as Her Brother or Friend?
Offer her your comfort and your humor. Whether she’s your sister or sister-in-law, a cherished colleague, or a childhood friend, the true definition of “brotherly” love applies to your relationship. What you can do for her is to make her feel better about herself in this very trying time. Seize opportunities to get your loved one to smile and laugh.
JOHN W. ANDERSON is the author of Stand By Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men. He is an Emmy-nominated director for Lifetime Television’s “Stop Breast Cancer for Life” campaign and an award-winning 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.