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Top 10 Ways to Support a Spouse with Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Support

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Updated November 25, 2008

Treatment for breast cancer made me feel very sick. Fortunately, my husband, Karl D. Stephan, stepped up to the challenge of suddenly becoming a home caregiver, while also holding down a full-time job. I asked him for his top ways to be supportive when your spouse is in treatment for breast cancer. Here's what he had to share.

1. Be There

The person with breast cancer needs you now more than ever. But the patient won't be fun to be with all the time. So, don't give into the temptation to hide from the situation by getting busier with work, hobbies, or other things that keep you away from the patient. It's no fun holding a woman's head while she loses her cookies, or holding her hand just before she goes into surgery. But she'll remember what you did for her later.

2. Advocate

Though she may be a fighter by nature, a woman with breast cancer is often in no shape to battle hospital bureaucracies, insensitive doctors, thoughtless nurses, or anyone else, especially you. It's your job to take her side and ask the hard questions, pound the receptionist's desk when you're being ignored, and act in her best interests. Even the best medical care personnel get too busy or preoccupied. And when that happens, you need to act to make sure your patient gets the care she needs.

3. Organize

Maybe you're not a born organizer. But you can keep track of doctor's appointments, medications, prescriptions, hospital bills, test reports, and the hundreds of other pieces of paper that a typical treatment sequence for breast cancer generates. Not all of these papers are important, but you don't want to lose the ones that are. And your patient will be relieved not to have to keep track of them herself.

4. Encourage

There will be times when you both feel like crying. Go ahead. But make sure you're the one handing out the hankies, not your patient. She needs an emotional anchor, and you're it, whether you like it or not. Sometimes not saying anything is better than saying the wrong thing. But if you're there, advocating, and organizing, your actions tell her that you care, even if you don't have the words to say it.

5. Act Normal

Whatever is normal for you, that is. Cancer doesn't mean the world has to grind to a halt. If you and the patient have normal routines and things you enjoy doing, try to keep them up to the extent possible. But always be sensitive to physical fatigue, emotional stress, or other reasons for not doing things you used to do, and give into the needs of your patient.

6. Be Honest

Most people today would rather hear the truth about their medical condition than a sweetened-up lie. This doesn't mean being needlessly cruel, however. When you both face the same facts together, whatever they are, you can act together and stay together through the treatment.

7. Don't Leave

If you're like most men, you look to your wife or girlfriend to supply needs or wants you have for affection, companionship, and sex. Some guys have the attitude that, "If a woman can't give me what I want anymore in these departments, I'd better drop her and find another one." This is the absolutely worst thing you can do to her at this vulnerable point in her life. A woman can get over cancer, but she'll never get over the deep and lasting emotional injury you've given her if you abandon her now. And neither will you. Don't do it. Stay with her, even if you're not that happy with the situation. You'll both be better off together than you'd be in Splitsville.

8. Ask Your Friends For Help

The two of you don't have to do it all by yourselves. Friends, neighbors, relatives are there to be asked for help. Not all of them will, but you will be surprised at what some people will do if you just ask them. Seek their help in driving to appointments, staying with the patient while you're at work, or doing errands you normally do but don't have time for anymore.

9. Expect Weird Reactions From Some People

Everybody has a different attitude toward cancer. Some people will get up and run away if you try to tell them what's wrong with the patient. Others will cry, get angry, or ignore the whole situation. You can't control their reactions, but you can control your reactions to them. Don't volunteer the information that your patient has cancer without a good reason. On the flip side, don't try to make it a deep dark secret either. And let the people you tell deal with it on their own terms.

10. Pray, Meditate . . . .

Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, understand that those beliefs are a part of the situation too. You and the patient will need a lot of resources to win, more than you can muster up on your own. Don't neglect your spirituality in this fight. It can connect you with the source of your greatest strength.
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