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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.
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What Can I Do? continued...

Instead, "Just listen," Perotti advises. "That can go contrary to instinct. She's talking about her feelings, treatment options, whatever, and he's probably going to jump to problem-solving pretty quickly. But there's tremendous value in just listening to someone. Then, what to say, if you've listened, will come naturally. Be empathetic with her feelings. Let her know that you recognize she's feeling very sad and very angry. If you're really struggling, just say 'I don't know what to say.'"

Marc Heyison, whose mother is a ten-year breast cancer survivor, and Steve Peck, who lost his wife to breast cancer, founded Men Against Breast Cancer. The organization provides resources for men who support women with breast cancer including "Partners in Survival" workshops and support tips on a wallet-sized card. "Men like to make lists of what they can do," Heyison says.

Among the card's pointers:

  • Listen without judging.
  • Be as open as possible. If you're afraid, say so. If you want to cry, cry.
  • Go to medical appointments with her whenever you can. If you can't go, make sure someone else does so she's not alone.
  • Make her hospital stays more comfortable - get her the books or videos she likes and put personal touches in the room.
  • Take care of yourself so you can be there for your family.

Communication is vital, especially when couples deal with intimacy issues. "Some men may say, 'I don't know how to approach my wife. I don't know if it's okay to be sexual with her,'" Perotti says. "If a woman is going through chemo, there will be times when the last thing on her mind will be sex. But on the other hand, she may be thinking, 'I lost a breast and he lost interest.'"

Perotti advises men to talk openly with their partners about sexual needs. "If you tell her 'I feel very sexual toward you, but I'm concerned that you might not feel that way. You might be tired or in pain.' Then she can say 'Whew! I really don't feel like having sex right now, but it's so important to know you want to, and you still want me.' That's very reassuring."

Y-ME offers a "Men's Match" program, pairing men with others who've gone through the same experience (1-800-221-2141), and it offers a guide, "When the Woman You Love Has Breast Cancer."

The Long Haul

Breast cancer, even if it's successfully treated, lingers in a woman's life for a long time. "Women often say that even years later, the cancer comes up in their mind a lot. They'll think about anniversaries of when they were diagnosed or when they had surgery" says O'Connor. "That's hard for many partners to think about. He has to be patient with that, acknowledge it, and not just expect it to be 'over.' Don't say 'get over it!'"

Mike Thomas agrees. "That's a very tough reality, because Jackie is a cancer survivor, but it will always be with her, and with us. That's something that she will live with for the rest of her life, and I have to understand that."

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Reviewed on September 06, 2005
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