A Husband’s Journey Through a Double Mastectomy
Tips on Coping, Supporting Your Wife, & What the Doctors Don’t Tell You
Breast Cancer. Like so many, I’ve seen the pink ribbons, watched women in pink t-shirts hit the streets for fundraising 5Ks, and cheered on pink-clad football players during the NFL’s Breast Cancer Awareness drives every October. Breast cancer awareness is ingrained in our society. That said, mine remained a passing awareness.
That was until October 2016 when my wife, Heather, was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. My gut told me her biopsy would reveal something. This mental red flag gave me time to prepare. But the bottom line was I didn’t care what happened as long as she stayed alive. I needed her by my side for the next 50-plus years.
We were lucky. Heather’s cancer was caught early, so we were given the benefit of time between diagnosis and surgery. I turned to online research so I could prepare as much as possible. I scoured sites about the mastectomy process, read details about surgery and recovery, and pored through blogs, comments, and personal essays.
I found an infinite number of articles for breast cancer survivors but very few pieces of advice for the partners. What the hell do I say to her? HOW do I say it? What is she going to look like afterward? Well, now that I’m on the other side of the mastectomy process, I want to share some real-life tips on what to say, how to prepare for what’s about to happen, and what you can do to care for your wife through the weeks ahead. Please note that my wife was blessed to avoid radiation and chemotherapy, so understand that this viewpoint is strictly about the mastectomy process.
Ask your wife what she needs. It may not be what you expect.
STEP ONE: Ask for Directions
Just like there is no one right way to grapple with having breast cancer, there is no one right way for you to show support. Use my mistake as an example: Soon after her diagnosis, my wife and I were talking about surgery and reconstruction. At one point, she started staring off into space and I could tell she was struggling. Thinking I was being a hero, I sat next to her, pulled her close, and hugged her tight to let her know everything was going to be OK. She just sat there – no hug back, no nothing. I could not have read that situation more wrong.
Later that night, I swallowed my pride and admitted I didn’t know how to best show support. Clearly, physical affection wasn’t it. She laughed, thanked me for trying, and told me she didn’t need touchy-feely. What she really needed was for me to attend doctors’ appointments with her, to help take notes and manage schedules. Ask your wife what she needs. It may not be what you expect.
PREPARING YOURSELF for the Physical Changes Ahead
The single biggest piece of advice I can offer is to go on Google Images to view pictures of what mastectomy healing looks like. I’m not going to sugar coat it: there are going to be scars, perhaps in multiple places, her chest might be flat, and she might lose one or both nipples. She will look different, and you want to prepare yourself for this.
Your wife is going to be nervous enough as it is seeing her chest for the first time. Imagine if you show your (albeit understandable) shock the first time she takes those bandages off. She will feel awful, and you’ll feel terrible.
We men are taught to be strong and emotionless, to say that everything’s fine. I’ll raise my hand and call BS on that.
Another thing you’ll want to prepare for are the drains and tubes. Your wife may emerge from surgery with drain tubes protruding out of her sides. These drains must be emptied several times a day. And they are not pretty. I come from a medical family and can watch open heart surgery while eating a turkey sandwich, but even I wasn’t quite ready for the bits of tissue and clots contained in this dark-orange fluid. Remember, this is all about you keeping a straight face and not making things worse for your wife.
AT THE HOSPITAL: Bring Something from Home to Cheer Up Her Stay
When my wife was wheeled into her room after surgery, I had a framed picture of our sons waiting on the table. Any reminder of home to be there for her when the pain sets in can be comforting. Even something small will break up the coldness of that room.
SIMPLIFYING the Well-Wisher Traffic
We were fortunate. Numerous friends and family offered help and food, more meals than our family could eat. Between you and me, while I knew these individuals meant well, I didn’t want people stopping by every single day, ringing the doorbell, dropping off a lasagna, and (understandably) wanting an update. I put a big cooler outside the front door with a note saying, “Dear Friends: Thank you so much for your help and support! Please place any food in the cooler. We are so grateful.”
I also put a piece of tape over the doorbell with a note that read, “To keep our wacky dog from barking and waking someone up, please do not ring the doorbell. Thanks.” OK, while this wasn’t entirely true, it allowed well-meaning folks to drop off a hot casserole without needing to come inside and wake my wife. Or me. Remember, you’ll need sleep too.
HOW YOU DOIN’?
Oh, that’s right. You’re in this too. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” We men are taught to be strong and emotionless, to say that everything’s fine. I’ll raise my hand and call BS on that. I didn’t fool anybody when my wife and I were going through this, and neither will you. You’re scared, stressed out, and worried. But it’s OK; that’s normal.
Things might get rough early on, and you may have to play cheerleader.
Find a friend you can be real with, someone who will be there when you need to vent. Because you will need to vent. One day I was so exhausted I could barely function, but I didn’t have a choice. There was laundry to do, tubes to strip, and medicine to administer. At my wits end, I called a friend and just vented about how exhausted I was. That little two-minute tension-releasing conversation did wonders.
GRAB YOUR POMPOMS and Smile Through the Setbacks
Things might get rough early on, and you may have to play cheerleader. Healing may be slower than expected, meltdowns can occur, emotions can reach critical mass, the list goes on. Take a deep breath and tell your wife she looks beautiful (even if she hasn’t showered in two weeks). Tell her the scars don’t look bad (even if they do). Tell her it will all be OK (even if you’re not sure it will).
BE A KNIGHT in Shining Armor
My job afforded me the flexibility to attend doctors’ appointments and work from home while taking care of my wife after surgery. Yours may not. I’m not here to judge. If it’s too much to juggle with work and other responsibilities, you may decide to bring in another caregiver, maybe a parent or sibling, to help care for your wife. It’s more than acceptable.
But even if you’re working 18-hour days with the weight of the world on your shoulders, get in the boat with your wife. Roll your sleeves up and strip her tubes occasionally, even if Mom is staying with you for two weeks. It’ll give you an appreciation for what she’s going through, and will strengthen your bond. Do the laundry without asking. Text her throughout the day to ask how she’s feeling. I even helped shave my wife’s legs one day – and did a pretty good job.
Women no longer need us to slay dragons or rescue them from a tower. But taking her to the salon to get her hair washed, or ordering her favorite takeout, are the kinds of things you can do to be her Knight in Shining Armor right now.
As husbands of breast cancer survivors, we are members of a club no one wants to join. It’s not easy. I hope these tips help ease the way for you and your wife, and I hope you do it all better than I did. I hope this terrible situation brings you closer, and that you make fewer mistakes than I did. You can do this. I’m rooting for you.
Chris Spires was caregiver to his wife, Heather, while she underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer. They live in Atlanta, GA.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.