- Communicate (and listen)
- Be there
- Provide household help and accept help
- Follow the ‘platinum rule’ instead of the ‘golden rule’
- Know that things are fluid and will change
- Seek support networks
- Care for the caregiver
- Remember that nothing is taboo
Navigating the world after being diagnosed with breast cancer can be challenging, frightening and overwhelming. And if you’re a man supporting and caring for a woman with breast cancer, you’re also facing unknown and uncertain terrain as you confront your own fears.
With these challenges in mind, here are eight tips for men caring for a woman with breast cancer, intended to help both you as the caregiver and your partner.
1. Communicate (and listen)
“Listen to what she needs,” said Nancy Yeisley, oncology social worker for Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Men aren’t necessarily used to being in the caregiver role, and also men tend to want to be fixers. I’ve heard patients say to their husbands, ‘I don’t need you to fix it. I just need you to listen to me.’”
Christine Mitchell, program manager for the Minnesota-based Caring Ways Cancer Resource Center, agreed:
“Focus on listening first and talking second … In those early days, everything is chaotic, everything is an emotional roller coaster. People don’t really know exactly what they are getting into, so it’s important as the caregiver to ask your partner if they want feedback or if they just need to talk.”
2. Be there
Amy Wold was diagnosed in 2019 and has endured six rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, five weeks of radiation and yearlong infusions of targeted therapy. The 52-year-old mother of four is now cancer-free and continues to see her oncologist for periodic checkups.
What did “be there” mean for her during her journey? It meant having her caregiver – her husband, Andy – attend doctor appointments, clinic visits, chemotherapy sessions, MRIs, other test procedures and so on.
“In my mind, this was the most important,” she said. “Just being there for me … As my world is spinning, I’m not hearing all the details, so my husband Andy was there as a second set of ears.”
3. Provide household help and accept help
“Any woman is going to think about having a lot on her plate,” Yeisley said. “She might tell you that she doesn’t need help. But take something off her plate whenever you can, whether that’s cooking, cleaning, errands, laundry, etc.”
Wold said she especially appreciated her husband taking over more of the household responsibilities. Additionally, she said it’s important to be willing to accept help – such as meals or lawn care or other work – from other family members, friends or neighbors.
At the same time, Wold said, from her experience, “You can let some stuff go, too. If the leaves don’t get raked, who cares? You can’t do it all when you are going through stuff like that.”
4. Follow the ‘platinum rule’ instead of the ‘golden rule’
“The platinum rule is, ‘treat others how they want to be treated,’” Yeisley said. “So, treat her how she wants to be treated.”
5. Know that things are fluid and will change
What a woman needs when she’s first diagnosed isn’t necessarily what she may need during treatment and following treatment, Yeisley explained.
“Keep communicating. Keep listening. Because things change.”
6. Seek support networks
Most hospitals and clinics can steer both patient and caregiver to support networks, said Mitchell, the Minnesota social worker. She encourages patients to “talk to all kinds of people, maybe not just their spouse.”
She provides women with information about the clinic’s breast cancer support group and encourages other types of support so the patient can find something that’s helpful.
“Some people are very private, and so a support group is not helpful for them. But there are a number of women who benefit from talking to other women who have been in their situation.”
There are also a wide range of online support groups, though Mitchell cautioned patients and caregivers to be diligent in finding reputable online resources. This sort of support network also extends to the caregivers. Many men in these caregiving situations don’t realize they also need support, so don’t overlook the groups and educational programs for caregivers offered by many cancer centers and through online resources.
7. Care for the caregiver
This is a key component and includes connecting to support groups, reaching out to friends and family, and taking care of yourself.
“It is important to remember to take time for yourself,” said Andy Wold. “Take time to exercise and have coffee with friends.”
“Caregivers sometimes need separate support … it’s a lot to shoulder,” agreed Mitchell. “They have their own set of fears and worries, and sometimes it is hard for them to feel they can speak honestly or show the sadness of breaking down and crying. They don’t necessarily want to share that with their partner.”
8. Remember that nothing is taboo
Finally, remember you’re dealing with a major life event, so open communication is important.
“For many men, talking about breasts or anything gynecological might seem a little strange,” writes Patient Resource. “Now is not the time to get shy.”
Mitchell counseled that men and women should, “Try to be honest and direct about it—that it’s OK not to feel well enough to have sex, to be tired.”
In addition, there are sometimes attractiveness or body image issues for women to contend with, Mitchell said, and sex and intimacy may change for a period of time.
“Sex and intimacy are big issues, so it’s best to deal with them openly and honestly.”