Caring for and Helping your Wife who has Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • “You feel like… you’re not handling things, and you’re not there for her.” That poignant statement was posted on this site recently by a man whose wife has breast cancer. He felt angry at the world, helpless in the face of his wife’s illness. Who or what could he lash out at? Who could he fight, to save his wife? What could he DO?

    I’ve learned, in 31 years of marriage, that the typical man will react to his wife’s complaints by wanting to do something to help her, to “solve the problem.” That’s laudable; it makes sense; it’s how guys think. In most cases, though, women are venting, and simply want a sympathetic ear. In most cases, whatever she’s venting about is over and done, and she’s just offloading the feelings she’s been holding inside all day. The rude clerk at the grocery store? She doesn’t want you to call the store manager and demand the person be chastised; she just wants to get rid of the negative feelings she’s been harboring ever since that impatient teenager working the cash register rolled his eyes and heaved a HUGE sigh when she couldn’t find her wallet. Once she’s done venting–let’s move on.
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    Cancer is more serious, of course, but really no different. You’re a man whose wife has cancer? You want to fix it. You need to take action, to be part of a solution. Problem is, there’s nothing you can do to take away the cancer. You can’t cure her. You can’t fix the problem. And that hurts, doesn’t it?

    The solution may be to change your expectations of the phrase “fixing the problem.” No doubt your wife has a huge number of challenges along with the fact she has cancer. She’s tired and no longer feels like coming home after a long day at work and preparing dinner. She’s worried how the kids feel, how you feel, and upset that SHE can’t make YOU feel better. She’s wondering how the bills will get paid if she misses too much work. And she feels really, REALLY guilty when you want to make love, and she’s just plain not up to it. How can you help her solve these problems?

    First, ask her how she feels. “How do you feel?” is pretty general; it’s like saying to your kids, “How was school today?” Just as the kids always answer “Fine,” your wife will say “I feel OK.” The subject is too broad; it would take too much effort for her to actually evaluate how she feels, and then verbalize that information. Instead, ask something specific, something concerning a known issue: “Did you feel queasy today?” Or, “Did you have to go in the bathroom and cry today, or were you OK?”

    Next, let her talk till she runs down. You’ll be tempted to offer alternate viewpoints, or–naturally!–solutions. When she says she drove around and around the parking garage at the hospital and couldn’t find a parking space and was late to her appointment, don’t tell her she wouldn’t have been late if she would have parked in the outside lot. Instead, sympathize. “I know, it’s so aggravating when that garage is full! They should have special spaces for cancer patients.” Eventually, she’ll run through her feelings and move on, and your having been an empathetic listener will have helped.

  • Ask her what’s bothering her, specifically. (Here’s where you might actually be able to solve a problem!) If she says the bills are mounting up, offer a reasonable solution. Tell her you might be able to take on some overtime; or, if she’s going to be out of work, tell her you’ll find out if her company offers a short-term disability benefit. On a personal level, when she says she’s worried about you and the kids, and feeling guilty for putting you through all this, reassure her–over and over and over again–that you’re all in this together, and she’s not “putting you through” anything. Cancer is putting you ALL through the same experience. And you’re all going to walk through this hell together, and come out the other side–together.
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    Finally, love her. Just love her. As women, that’s what we want the most: to know that, despite the loss of our breast(s), our health, often our patience and upbeat attitude, sometimes even our livelihood–we’re still loved. “Love conquers all” isn’t QUITE true; it doesn’t cure cancer. But it soothes a world of hurt, and it’s the best solution to many a problem.
Published On: August 31, 2007