The Shock of Diagnosis and Stress of Fighting Breast Cancer: A Husband's Emotional Response

Tom Brown Health Guide
  • "The tumor is malignant..."


    "You have breast cancer..."


    "I am sorry but..." Whatever the phrase that was used to tell your loved one that she has breast cancer, it is a tremendous shock. Both the patient and the caregiver will have all sorts of emotional reactions throughout the treatment process.


    In our case the doctor who performed the biopsy told me right after the surgery that the sample tissue looked cancerous. Of course he would not know for certain till the results came back from the pathology lab, which they did a few days later.


    A recent study of couples seven years out from treatment showed that partners of cancer survivors often suffer just as much emotional stress as the survivors themselves, "and, in some cases, suffer more quality of life-related effects than survivors." And yesterday, a new study published in the Sept. 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology came to a similar conclusion.

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    Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center found that spouses reported similar physical and emotional quality of life as the patient. What's more, the researchers found that spouses had lower confidence than patients in their ability to manage the illness, and more uncertainty about the illness. Patients also had more social support than did spouses. I couldn't agree more with that finding.


    With those issues in mind, I want to address the emotional side of breast cancer from my personal perspective as a cancer caregiver. Listed below are some of the highlights; they offer a closer look at the emotional stress described in the studies I mentioned. You can expect a follow up SharePost on ways that I learned to deal with these emotional challenges.


    FEAR AND CONFUSION: I never told her how I felt about this because I tried to be her coach and source of strength. There were many nights, especially when she was in the hospital with the infections, that I cried myself to sleep. I just kept thinking that it was so unfair for her to have cancer and suffer all the humiliation and sickness that came with the chemotherapy treatments. I never really got over the fear of losing her. I was so afraid of what would happen to me. How could I go on with my life without her? How would I cope with never seeing her or talking with her again? I thought a lot about death during this period. I firmly believed in the afterlife and eternal salvation. I knew that Barbara was a good Christian and that her place in heaven would be a certainty. But I wanted her here on earth with me for the rest of my life. I wanted to see her grow old and comfort me. I couldn't stand the thought of her dying before me. After all, I was the one who served in the Army, a very dangerous profession that, at any minute, could have thrust me in harm's way to face the strong possibility of death.


    I woke up every day with gut-wrenching anxiety attacks. I didn't sleep well and would often awake in the middle of the night in fear and confusion. I felt so helpless and so sorry for my poor wife who faced each new problem with a smile and a positive attitude. I knew all along that she was afraid, but she did a good job of hiding it. I guess that this attitude helped give me some strength in my lonely world full of confusion and pain.


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    SHOCK AND FOCUS: During the initial stages of Barbara's treatment in late 1992, I was in shock. It all seemed so unreal, like a bad nightmare. But it was no dream. It was real and events were moving along quickly. It was during this period that I also felt a change come over me. I had always been sort of a materialistic individual. But my attitude toward those things began to change. I had to keep focus and concentrate on managing the treatment of my wife. The most important thing in the world was Barbara, her well being and receiving the best possible treatment to enhance the probability of a successful recovery. Material objects, money, and work all took a backseat. Nothing mattered except Barbara and our joint fight against cancer. My life had been altered so drastically, that I often found that I did things out of the ordinary that I never would have done in the past.


    BITTERNESS AND PAIN: No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get rid of the thought that this horrible disease just might claim her life. Here we were, forty-four years of age, close to retirement from the Army, and our sons were both grown and just about out of college. This was the prime of our lives when we should be setting goals and objectives for the retirement years. We should have been dreaming about vacations without kids, and discussing how we would treat our yet unborn grandchildren. Instead, we went from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital and I watched them pump lots of drugs into my sweetheart's body trying to destroy a killer disease. I was becoming a bitter person. I felt that life was unfair. I hated cancer and I hated the chemotherapy that was destroying Barbara's body. Why couldn't we find the cause of breast cancer? Then she wouldn't have to suffer.


    FEELING HELPLESS: Throughout my entire life I had always been a problem solver. I worked hard to get resolution to everything. I was not always successful in getting the resolution that I wanted, and I made mistakes of judgment on occasion. I enjoyed a hard challenge and took great pleasure when I completed a task. But the challenge of helping your wife beat cancer was something that I never thought I would have to face. It just always seemed that since we were such a happily married couple that communicated well, that we would go on to the golden years together. I had a difficult time knowing that I couldn't do a thing to cure Barbara from cancer. All I could do was fight with her and provide as much comfort and support as I could. I did a lot of soul searching and philosophical pondering about the meaning of life in general. I found that I had a hard time focusing on anything but the battle with cancer. It was consuming. It occupied my every thought. But during this time I also found that I had strengths that I didn't know. When you are at your lowest ebb in your life, somehow you find the strength to carry on with your life. I found that I was much more pleasant with people than I ever had been before. At the same time, I found myself wishing that someone else had my problems. I would see couples in perfect health and ask, "Why not them?" Not that I really wanted them to have cancer, but I just wanted it taken away from us. I guess that I was just really angry and bitter that others had the perfect life that I once had.

Published On: September 21, 2007