A man caring for his wife (or mother, or sister, or girlfriend) through breast cancer finds himself facing the unknown, too. How can a guy best help her—while also getting the support he needs? We tapped men who’ve been through the experience themselves for their advice.
Keep living your life: “I found it really easy to not want to go to a business meeting or to something because my wife had breast cancer. But I didn’t think that was fair. It was like letting breast cancer win. Don’t succumb to the cancer. Live your life as normally as possible,” says Bruce Sokol, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995 at age 35. She died from the disease after battling it for five years.Don’t run yourself ragged though, Bruce says. Between her doctor’s appointments and your busy life, it’s important to schedule in downtime, too. Battling breast cancer can be a years-long experience and you don’t want to burn out.
Create time for you: Most men who support women through breast cancer cope best through exercise or talking to friends than by participating in formal support groups, according to a study published recently in Oncology Nursing Forum. “When things got really tough and she was feeling good enough for me to leave the house, I’d go play golf or go for a run or workout,” Bruce says. Paul Atkinson, whose then-girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42, found relief by working at a job he loved, through talking to supportive colleagues, and by taking his dog for regular walks in the park. “Sometimes you need someone to talk to, maybe another guy who’s dealt with it. Or maybe you need an escape so you don’t have the stress and mental anguish building inside,” he says.
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Listen to her: Some men instinctively attack breast cancer by powering through doctor’s appointments, treatments and caregiving for the woman in his life. Those actions are important ways of supporting her, but so is listening. “No matter how much information you find, you really have to be there for her. You may not understand what she’s going through, but be there to listen intently. Be part of the conversation,” Paul advises.
Accept offers of support: If someone offers help, accept it, even if you think you can do it all by yourself, says Basil Tatsis, whose wife Jackie died in 2008 after battling breast cancer for six years. “People need to help themselves more than the patient sometimes. Most people cope and do the best they can, and with some help from the outside, you manage.” Bruce agrees. “You let people do what they insist on doing because it helps them, whether you need it or not,” he says. “If not, it leaves them empty. People want to help. To deny them that is a mistake.”
Tell her she’s beautiful: Something men don’t frequently talk about is how the physical effects of breast cancer surgery can affect a woman’s view of herself, and therefore your relationship, says Paul, who proposed to his girlfriend while she was going through breast cancer treatments. Diagnosed in 2007, Dawn Atkinson is now cancer-free. “When you have a lumpectomy (or a mastectomy), you’ve had a part of your body removed and you think you don’t look attractive,” Paul says. “It’s a component that men may overlook. We know in our minds the beauty that’s there, but sometimes a woman needs to hear that. She sees the scar, the painful reminder. To this day, I still need to remind her that she’s beautiful and that I’m still attracted to her.”
Communicate openly with those you care about. Even if you’re a private person, Bruce recommends being honest with friends, family and children about the breast cancer journey. “Don’t hide it. Get it out there in a way you’re comfortable with and in a way the person you’re talking to is comfortable with,” says Bruce who wrote, Breast Cancer: A Husband’s Story, to help other men know that they’re not alone in their experiences. When the book came out in the mid-1990s, talking about breast cancer was still hush-hush because it involved a sexual and sensual part of a couple’s relationship, he explains. “Some men are still unwilling to confront and talk about the disease, but we’ve come 180 degrees with people being willing to talk about this so-called taboo.”
DO something about it. Bruce channeled his frustration with breast cancer into battling the disease with action. He created the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama and the Annual Drive-Out Breast Cancer LPGA Pro-AM golf tournament, which has now been held for 17 years and raised over $3.5 million. “Starting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation was my coping mechanism. It was my way to fight back,” he says. While not everyone has the drive to start an organization from scratch, there are many ways to get involved. Simply do a Google search and you’ll find a slew of possibilities — from organizing a team for a breast cancer walk to hosting fundraising events for a local or national breast cancer organization.
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Take care of household chores. Whether she’s the one who normally does the housekeeping or you usually split the job, it’s likely that you’ll need to do a bit extra (or all of it) on days when she’s not feeling well.“I would do anything around the house to try and help her, even while we were both still working,” Basil says. Pay attention to when you’ve hit your limits though, and call in help when you need it. “I tried to be superman, I tried to do it all… but there’s only so much you can do,” he says. “If dishes sit overnight, it’s nothing to cry about. If the house is messy for a few days, it’s not the end of the world. If the laundry doesn’t get done, you have to step back and say, ‘In the scheme of things, it’s just not that big of a deal.’”What she needs most, pure and simple, is you. Adds Basil, “Help as much as you can. Love her. It’s an expression of love in everything you do.”