John W. Anderson has stood by his mother, wife, sister, and his mom’s closest friend as they battled breast cancer. His new book, Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men, published in time for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, details these experience, and all that he learned by being on the frontlines of this battle with four of the most important women in his life.
From when to stay quiet, shave your head, or grab a beer with a buddy to get out of what he dubs "Cancerland," Anderson spoke to WebMD about how men can help the women they love face breast cancer.
Here’s what he had to say:
Why write a book about breast cancer for men?
“I had written a screenplay that became a Lifetime movie called Four Extraordinary Women, and realized that this really shouldn’t be the end. The Lifetime network is targeted for women, so a lot of guys wouldn’t see the movie. There are few books about what men should do when a loved one is diagnosed with breast cancer. I realized I could write a book that targets all men and all different types of relationships – mothers, wives, sisters, and friends.
Your wife started breast cancer treatment the same day your mom died from the disease. How did you feel that day?
It was awful. Breast cancer has always had a weird synchronicity for me. My dad had my mom’s funeral on St. Patrick's Day, and 21 years later, I found out that they were publishing this book on that same date.
What did you do to express solidarity when your wife began treatment for breast cancer?
What is the best piece of advice you can give a man who is watching a loved one battle breast cancer?
Listen to her. Hear what her needs and wants are and ask how you can help. Do not force your agenda on her. React, don’t act. If she shuts you out, let time take its course. She is processing and dealing with heavy stuff. Show patience and humility. She is the commander-in-chief.
How can a man stay positive for a loved one if he is scared?
Get away from Cancerland. Whether golfing or having beer with a friend, you need a reprieve. You can’t be on all the time. You also need to be honest about what you are feeling. Be open and talk to a friend or family member. Guys tend to hold it in and say ‘I'm OK or I am doing fine,’ but they are torn up inside and have nowhere to go. When I needed help, I turned to my guy friends so I could download what I was going through. This is why we are launching an online forum in conjunction with the book so guys can anonymously discuss how they feel when a loved one has breast cancer.
Your mom lost her battle with breast cancer. How are your wife, sister and mom’s best friend, Caryl?
They are doing great. My wife is now coming up on her ninth anniversary. My sister has been cancer-free since 2002, and Caryl is coming up on 30 years.
Is there still a lot of anxiety around follow-up testing?
There is always worry, but worry becomes less and less as each anniversary passes. It sure feels better when tests are negative and you get a confirmation that all is well.
What did you learn from each of these “Four Extraordinary Women” as they coped with cancer?
My mother taught me about strength. When she was diagnosed, the doctors gave her three to six months to live. Her youngest child was 5 or 6 at the time. She said ‘I am not gonna die. I am going to get my last kid through high school.’ She willpowered it, and got him through junior year.
My wife taught me about selflessness. When she was first diagnosed, she apologized to me because I would have to go through it all over again. She was always concerned about how I was doing and how our kids were doing, and was a great wife and mother even though she was going through a difficult time. She also taught me the value of doing your research. She dug deep and got a lot of second opinions.
My sister taught me about spirituality. Her spiritual strength and ability to deal with obstacles was inspiring.
Caryl taught me how to be a better caregiver. She was there so much for my mom that it gave me groundwork for when my wife and sister were diagnosed. My mother and Caryl went over the top and moved into each other’s houses when each of them was diagnosed with breast cancer.
What can men do to help women in their lives feel good about themselves while being treated for breast cancer?
It depends on whether it’s a husband-wife, father-daughter, mother-son, or another type of relationship. Husbands can make their wives feel good by bringing her flowers and telling her you think she is as beautiful as the day you met. Her femininity has been challenged in this situation and she needs to know you are there for her. There is no cast-iron way to do this, but tune in to her needs, wants, fears, and insecurities.
Many women with breast cancer say that their partners had a hard time with their appearance after treatment, especially at first. Did that happen for you?
“It is impossible to generalize how each man reacts to his partner when he first sees how his loved one looks to him after surgery. Keep in mind that many breast cancer surgeries are lumpectomies, which are partial removals of breast tissue, not a full removal like a mastectomy, so the change isn’t necessarily that extreme. With that said, sure there are men out there who have a hard time with it, but I would say that most men don’t, especially if they truly love their wives or significant others.
For me, I was so happy to see Sharon after her surgery, to know that her tumors had been removed, that she looked more beautiful to me than ever before. I still feel that today.
When Sharon looked at her mastectomy for the first time, she said that she felt emotionally, as well as physically, numb. She didn’t know how to feel at all. But after she showed me what had been done to her, and I told her how beautiful she was to me, and how much I loved her, it was then that her feelings came rushing back to her. Our marriage had taken a major step forward when this happened. Sharon said it was right then that she knew that our marriage was not only going to be fine, but better because of this experience.”
What has changed between the time that your mom was first diagnosed and now in terms of treatment and awareness of breast cancer?
Back then breast cancer was referred to as ‘the big C’ in hushed tones. It was the elephant in the room. Now when someone gets diagnosed, women are open and there is a much bigger network of support for family and friends. That is a huge difference. There have also been advances in diagnosing and treating breast cancer. Today there is hope even with a recurrence. A breast cancer recurrence isn’t a death sentence. You just have to fire back up.
Given your strong family history of breast cancer, any thoughts on gene testing for breast cancer genes?
It is something I should do. My sister tested positive. My dad tested positive. I think about it from my sons' perspective, too. Their mom, aunt, and grandmother had breast cancer and their grandfather has the gene.