Breast Cancer Diagnosis: A Husband and Wife Guide to the First 48 Hours

Jacki Donaldson Health Guide

  • Jacki and John Donaldson

    My mom was the first person I called after learning I had breast cancer. She lives in my neighborhood, and I knew she’d run right over and console me. She did.


    My husband was the second person I told. He became the first, however, to respond to my every worry, concern, and fear about a disease that would become almost as much his as mine.


    John didn’t have a lump in his breast. He didn’t face surgery and all that would follow. But his life would unravel in ways he never could have predicted. In a sense, his job was tougher than mine. He not only had to make sense of cancer for himself, he had to keep me from crumbling. That was no small job.

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    Neither John nor I know exactly how we got through the first couple of days following our crushing cancer blow. Yet somehow, we did. And now, almost three years later, I realize it was John who propelled us forward during our early days with cancer, the days filled with uncertainty, confusion, and utter disbelief.


    Recently, I asked John to talk about his role as breast cancer husband, to share what he’d learned so that others—like you—can benefit. He hadn’t ever given it much thought, he told me. Still, he quickly rattled off all sorts of wisdom. He spilled out volumes of insight—so much it’s hard to narrow down and neatly package into this short SharePost.


    With a little effort, I was able to organize John’s advice into a manageable list. And here it is: complete with 10 tips for getting through breast cancer’s first 48 hours.

    Please borrow these tips—use them, alter them to fit your needs, and then pass them on.


    1) Respond With Compassion


    Extreme ranges of emotion are normal following a breast cancer diagnosis. Whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or downright terror, John says: be compassionate. Compassion is its own emotion. It’s a shared sense of suffering. Consider the pain your partner feels—and try through gentle kindness to alleviate some of it.


    2) Follow Her Lead


    Each woman handles her diagnosis differently. Some quietly contemplate cancer. Some share freely. Some vent. Others find solace in retreat, silence, even denial. I tend to talk. It’s how I process life when it feels out of control. What I needed during my darkest days was someone to listen. John sensed this and came to my rescue. He followed my lead. It worked like charm.


    3) Partner Up When Telling Children


    The night of my diagnosis, our oldest child—then three—came into our room crying, “I had a dream mommy’s head broke apart.” Having witnessed the drama in our house, he’d created his own scary scenario. Fortunately, his version was much worse than ours—so we told him the next day: “Mommy has a boo-boo in her booby. Doctors will take it out. Then mommy will take medicine so she can get better.” John and I shared the chore of explaining cancer to our kids. It was a team effort. It worked well that way.


    4) Do Your Research

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    John recommends partners educate themselves. Try Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. It’s a one-stop shop for reliable information about breast cancer. Visit the American Cancer Society Web site. Take a look at various resources. Then read, study, and learn. It will serve you well as you navigate the medical maze and are called on to offer advice throughout your complicated journey.


    5) Locate an Outlet for Emotion


    Help your spouse find a support group, an on-line community, an organization where she can channel her feelings and relate with others. John led me to writing. He encouraged me to create my Breast Cancer blog, a Web site journal about my experience. He set it up, taught me the basics, and let me loose. It helped me communicate with friends and family about my progress, it became a form of therapy, and it eventually led editors my way. Writing about cancer gave me a career. This makes John proud. You can start writing here on by posting a comment or writing your first SharePost.


    6) Stay One Step Ahead


    Try to anticipate what’s coming next. If your partner will have surgery, initiate time off from work, arrange for childcare, and plan meals. If chemotherapy is on the books, think about hair loss and how you might ease the trauma. Radiation? Fatigue is a common side effect so prepare for your partner to feel tired. Let her know it’s OK to let go and rest.


    7) Make Cancer a Priority


    “Work is not important,” John says. “Cancer is.” Plan to go to appointments, visit during treatments, care for your kids during tough times, and come home at a moment’s notice if necessary.


    8) Support Everything


    Hold her hand, rub her back, massage her sore scalp, shave your head, walk, run, raise money, wear pink shirts, do whatever it takes to prove you are by her side. It’s everything—really.


    9) Be Real


    Be strong. Be weak. Be hopeful. Be frightened. Laugh. Cry. Scream. Hide. It’s necessary. It’s healthy. It will make you a better you. It will make you a better partner.


    10) Keep Moving


    I obsessed about cancer in the beginning. It’s all I thought about. Fortunately for me, it often slipped off John’s radar and allowed him to continue living. And he invited me to keep living. We went out to dinner, took family trips, lost ourselves in the joy of our little boys, and simply kept moving. Good thing we did—because we soared through and beyond cancer. And now, when I get a glimpse of the disease in the rearview mirror, I can’t help but think John is the reason I am happily surviving.

Published On: June 12, 2007