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What If Husbands Had A GPS To Help Wives With Breast Cancer?

Recalculating ...
Katherine Streeter for NPR
Recalculating ...

When I make a wrong turn, the woman's voice in my GPS says, "Route recalculation." Then she tells me how to get back on track.

How I wish this electronic tool could be adapted for men whose wives have breast cancer.

Imagine a device that would help us correct course when we try our best to support the women we love — and inevitably mess up. As a breast cancer husband who did just about everything wrong when my wife was diagnosed, I would have been very grateful for a little back-seat driving.

Let's consider some examples.

My wife, Marsha, has just had a mammogram. A radiologist rather callously informs her, "Sure looks like cancer to me." A three-day weekend looms before she can see a surgeon and get more information. My wrongheaded instinct is to cheer her up. Marsha loves books, so surely she'll be happy if I take her to a book festival. That'll get her mind off the cancer bombshell.

But as we walk around, she looks sadder than I've ever seen her. Route recalculation: "Honey, I can see this isn't what you want to do right now. Tell me what would be helpful: We can go home, we can sit and cuddle, we can watch some mindless TV, we can, gulp, talk about how you're feeling." Then, shut up and listen.

Another time, we're running from doctor to doctor, listening to treatment plans. I figure it's my job to pick the best plan — a husband is supposed to take care of his wife, right? Route recalculation: Be her sounding board, not her boss.

Your wife might ask you, "What did you think of that doctor? What do you think about that chemo regimen?" Tell her what you think. Ask her questions. But then step back and remember that it's her decision, not yours.

One surgeon says to Marsha, "I can see you'd always worry about recurrence, so I'd recommend a double mastectomy." Marsha had always thought she would say, "Off with my breasts," if it meant saving her life.

Now she is mourning this possibility. I try to make things better, saying, "Honey, I'll love you with or without your breasts."

Marsha responds: "How'd you feel if they wanted to cut off your penis?"

Me (thinking to myself): "What the ... ?"

Spousal Route Recalculation: Don't take her cutting remark personally. Admit it, you can't possibly imagine how she feels. Medical route recalculation: Marsha sees another doctor who says that lumpectomy plus radiation offers comparable survival odds for Marsha, and that's the route she chooses.

My wife tells me I don't have to come to the doctor's office with her. So I'm going to listen, right? Route recalculation: She may be trying to spare me because she feels guilty imposing on my time.

Tell her: "What the heck, I'm coming anyway. I'll remind you of the questions you want to ask. I'll write down or tape-record what the doctor says."

Detour: One breast cancer survivor told me, "My husband isn't very good with doctors, he has a demanding job as a truck driver, and I could bring my sister to the appointments." She and her husband agreed on this arrangement, and it worked out fine for them.

I'm exhausted. My job is as demanding as ever, I'm doing more household chores because my wife is dealing with cancer, and then there are all the doctors' visits. Dare I take any time to unwind? No sirree. That would be ... selfish!

Route recalculation: Caregivers need a break, too. "Honey, is it OK if I go for a bike ride, shoot some hoops, hang out with my pals?" I ask. Marsha is very understanding. For a little while, I can run away from cancer. And when I get back home, I feel a little calmer, a little more myself. And I'm a better caregiver.

I'm in the mood for love. But my wife is in the middle of cancer treatments. Do I dare come on to her? Maybe I should just hold back. Route recalculation: There's nothing wrong with propositioning your wife. Maybe she's in the mood, too. Or maybe she just wants you to hold her, massage her back, whisper "I love you" in her ear.

And if she's not in the mood, well, as my wife teases, "Too bad for you!" But at least she knows I haven't lost that loving feeling. And who knows, maybe one day soon she'll be ready for an intimacy route recalculation.

Silver is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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