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The Guy's Guide to Breast Cancer

If the woman you love is diagnosed with breast cancer, you have to cope, too.

WebMD Feature

In August 2001, Jackie Thomas was diagnosed with breast cancer and quickly had surgery and started chemotherapy. Her husband, Michael, a Lutheran minister with a background as a chaplain at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha found that his experience counseling others through illness hadn't prepared him for this. "It's a very difficult position to be in. You're used to being in control and you're not in control. You want to come up with a solution and there is no solution."

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can blindside the men who love her - husbands, boyfriends, fathers, sons. It's not just a "woman's issue," say the men who've been affected. But many of them know little about the disease itself and find themselves at a loss as to how to help the women they love cope emotionally (much less cope themselves).

What's Happening to Her?

"Breast cancer is one of those diseases where there isn't a simple formula for treatment," says Judy Perotti, director of patient services for Y-ME, a national breast cancer organization. "Treatment is very individualized based on the woman's age, the size of the tumor, whether it's in the lymph nodes, and whether it's estrogen-receptor positive. Those are pieces of information that are critical to know and understand."

Y-ME offers a brochure called Understanding Your Breast Cancer Pathology Report that can help decipher the "medicalese" behind your wife's or mother's hospital chart. "People should know that they have to be active in the treatment decisions, because there isn't a formula," Perotti says.

Still, there are some things you can expect. "Most younger women with invasive breast cancer get chemotherapy. That takes at least three months, sometimes more," says Anne O'Connor, RN, MSN, clinical nurse coordinator at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University.

"Every three weeks, she'll get chemo for an hour to four hours. For the next several days, she'll be taking a lot of medication and not feeling well. After that, she'll probably be feeling more like herself, but she'll still be fatigued, and the effects are cumulative."

There will be other changes. "If she has radiation therapy, just going for it is fatiguing, since the treatment is usually Monday through Friday for six weeks. There can be skin changes and sensitivity," O'Connor says. "There will be changes to the breast. And there will be emotional changes."

What Can I Do?

For many men, the biggest challenge is dealing with the fact that they can't "fix" this. "They feel helpless. It's a horrible feeling," Perotti says. "It's very difficult to stand by and watch as the person who's dearest to you in the whole world is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and goes through treatments that may be very difficult. A lot of men want to fix things, and they're very frustrated when it becomes evident very quickly that they can't."

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