BREAST CANCER 101

I am the husband of a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer over twenty years ago. Some of the advice I offer here is based on that personal experience. She is alive and healthy, but the memory of what we went through is as vivid today as it was back then.

As the partner of a woman with breast cancer, you’re probably in as much pain and turmoil as she is. The coming days and months will be challenging. You’ll have to deal with your own feelings, as well as give the woman you love the support she needs. A positive attitude will help both of you get through the ordeal.

If you can step outside the “cancer” mindset, you will see that this is an opportunity for you and the woman you love to have one of the most rewarding experiences in your life.

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You may know breast cancer as something that requires a big operation and leaves the woman disfigured, or something that is treated with chemotherapy, causing hair to fall out. And something that women usually die of.

In reality, breast cancer that is diagnosed early is one of the most treatable diseases. There has been enormous progress in breast cancer management in the past twenty years. There are effective combinations of treatments that can kill cancer cells, and surgical techniques that give cosmetically pleasing results. In this situation that probably appears pretty dismal to you right now, there are plenty of reasons to be positive.

In the next days or weeks, you should review the appropriate chapters of this book with your partner, and learn with her. Understanding breast cancer and its treatment will help you regain a feeling of control over your life, and will make you a much more effective supporter for the woman you love.

Understanding Your Feelings

“The doctor told me I have breast cancer.” These may be the most painful words you’ll ever hear from someone you love. Words that bring a flood of emotions—shock, disbelief, confusion—and the inevitable question, “Is she going to die?”

Dealing with these issues is a lot to handle. On top of this, you have an even bigger task. You have to quickly come to grips with your own emotions, so that you can become the main source of support for the woman you love. In the coming days and weeks, you may be asked to play a variety of roles—take notes during medical visits, drive her to chemotherapy sessions, listen without judging, or hold her close when she needs it.

You may feel overcome by the feeling that somehow you must make it all better, and be frustrated when you find out you can’t. There is no easy answer, and no shortcut. Accept what you are feeling. Don’t be embarrassed. You are facing a serious problem, and it is normal to feel scared, confused, and weak.

Breast cancer will stress your relationship in countless ways. Your lifestyle will be disrupted—by treatment schedules, or by the new financial burdens that prevent you and your loved one from enjoying your usual activities. The roles each of you played in the relationship may change, and you may find that you are now responsible for tasks that are new to you, or that you are unwilling to tackle. You may have to deal with the side effects of her treatment, such as fatigue, vomiting, or loss of sexual drive. And there will be the turmoil of having to make important decisions while facing the uncertainties of the future.

Fear, anxiety, and sadness will affect how the two of you communicate. Acknowledge these feelings. You can be strong and supportive without holding everything inside. In fact, sharing your feelings honestly with her is the best thing you can do. You may be surprised to find that your loved one appreciates the fact that you can express emotions to her. This sharing improves communication and strengthens your relationship—now, and for the long future.

During the first weeks after her diagnosis you will probably feel like you are riding an emotional roller coaster. There will be days when, after a conversation with your loved one, or a visit to the physician, everything will seem under control, and you will feel strong and optimistic. But that very night, negative thoughts will begin to creep into your head, and you’ll feel like all is lost, and there is no hope. You may spend the night pacing, or crying, or wondering what you’ll do if you lose the woman you love. By morning you’ll remember that there are excellent treatment options, and that her outlook for a healthy life is much better than it seemed a few hours ago. And the world will seem much less gloomy.

These swings of feelings are painful and exhausting, but they are normal. The good news is that with time these emotional tidal waves get smaller and smaller—until they are just ripples in a pond, and you find that you can deal with them.