Surviving Breast Cancer Together

A relationship can be put to the test after diagnosis and through treatment. How one man learned to stop "fixing" and start listening.
By Marc Silver

One sunny Friday in August, my wife called me at work. She’d just had a mammogram, and a no-nonsense radiologist told her, “Sure looks like cancer to me.” Here’s what I should have said: “Honey, you must be terrified. I’m coming home right now. We’ll get through this together.”

Here’s what I did say: “Eww, that doesn’t sound good.”

My wife later told me that in that moment, she thought, He’s not going to be any help at all.

And her prediction was right—at least at first. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want to help Marsha. It’s just that like many men whose wives face this terrifying diagnosis, I didn’t know how.

After Marsha’s mammogram, the next step was to schedule a biopsy. For the three days before we saw the surgeon, I thought I would be doing a good deed if I distracted Marsha from the news at hand. She loves reading, so I dragged her to a book festival. She wandered around like a zombie.

I could see the pain in Marsha’s eyes but never asked how she was feeling. I didn’t want her to tell me she was afraid, because I was afraid—and I didn’t know how to comfort her. My hapless efforts to take her mind off cancer were really more about helping me cling to my wishful thinking: Maybe this is a mistake, and the radiologist is wrong! Even if she’s right, maybe it won’t be so bad!

But that no-nonsense radiologist was right, and it was bad. After a positive biopsy result, we sat in the doctor’s office, and I couldn’t pretend anymore. The oncologist talked about surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. In an instant, this wasn’t all just a bad dream. It was a very real diagnosis with big implications, and I had to figure out what my job should be.

Luckily, Marsha gave me some hints. She asked me to write down questions she wanted to ask her doctors at follow-up appointments and during her treatments. That was good for her, and good for me. I had something to do that was genuinely helpful. Since I’m a reporter by trade, I also started taking notes at the appointments. I didn’t realize how useful that would be at first—it turns out, the stress of a cancer diagnosis can make a patient forget much of what’s said.

Yet I still had a lot to learn about being a compassionate caregiver.

When Marsha was considering a double mastectomy, I wanted to make everything OK. I told her I would love her without breasts. I figured I was being the perfect husband.

She gave me a dirty look: “How would you feel if they were going to cut off your penis?” I tried not to take it personally.

I wish I had known about a study that I later came across. Looking at two groups of breast cancer patients—relentless optimists and utter realists—a psychiatrist found the women who let it all out coped better with the stress of treatment and even fared better than their initial prognosis. In other words, a patient needs to express her feelings, and her husband shouldn’t try to talk her out of them.

What I learned is that caregivers need to be both selfless and selfish. Fortunately, I’ve had lots of practice in the latter department. During nine stressful months of treatment, I’d escape on weekends for an hour or so to recharge my cancer-drained batteries. Sometimes, I’d jog or bike. Yoga class was awesome: Instead of trying to control the cancer situation (which no one can really do), I could just lie on the floor and follow a yogi’s commands.

For both of us, laughter was the best medicine for the cancer blues. Marsha got a preemptive buzz cut before chemo took its toll, and when we found ourselves at a wig store, suddenly she was Dolly Parton! Then Elvira, Mistress of the Dark! Then a diner waitress we nicknamed “Big Red.” We howled together. Laughed till we cried (which, as it turns out, is much better than just plain crying). It was the first good laugh we’d had since the cancer diagnosis, and it made us feel more like our old, pre-cancer selves.

One thing cancer survivors will tell you, however, is that you can never go back to the way it was. In some marriages, a diagnosis leads to divorce. In others, it creates a stronger bond and couples grow closer after the ordeal.

We’ve had a few scares about recurrence since Marsha’s diagnosis in 2001. Each time, I remember my screwups and try to do better. I banish my inner cheerleader. I shut up, and I try to listen to my wife. Because she’s the one who knows what she needs.

I think I’ve come a long way since that summer day when I stumbled on the phone. But ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide. I recently asked my wife to grade me as a breast cancer husband. She’s a high-school teacher, and she’s not an easy marker. “Well, you started out with an F,” she said, for failure. “But I like to keep in mind whether someone shows a positive trend.” So, she gave me a B-plus.

Best grade I ever earned.

Marc Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond (Rodale, 2004).