A Partner's Perspective

A Partner's Perspective

[A guest post written by my husband Kevin]

Here’s one for the significant others! (Or anyone who wants to understand what might be going on in our curious little brains during a time like this).

The plight of the cancer partner is a tricky one to navigate. You have to be there in the front seat for the entire ride (i.e., “we are dealing with this thing the best that we can…”), but knowing that it isn’t really about you. You have to provide guidance, but not be pushy. You have to be helpful, but not pretend like anything you do will make the core grief and frustration disappear. All the while, you have to keep stumbling forward even when it feels like your world is going to hell in a handbasket.

I hadn’t thought much about cancer before the diagnosis. I’m an optimist by nature and try not to dwell on things that aren’t likely to happen. That’s deep-rooted in me, and that’s just how I’ll always be. So every setback that we had (diagnosis! surgery! chemo!) was like a miniature gut punch to my entire sense of being. This was real, and there wasn’t much on the bright side for me to turn to. All we had was an evolving clarity on what we needed to do.

There are only a smattering of breast cancer resources out there for the other half. The staple recommendation is Marc Silver’s Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) during Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond. It’s a helpful resource, though a bit old fashioned (it’s from 2004). There’s an early section which can be summarized as “don’t leave your wife”(!), and another that offers something like “if you’re not doing any dishes, now might be a good time to start”(!). But in general the book is a good resource, because: 1) it covers the flurry of treatment options that you’ll learn about across a series of (overwhelming) doctor’s visits; 2) it provides some helpful tips on being a good emotional partner and maintaining your own sanity (very important!).

Thinking back over six months supporting Kel, it mostly seems like a chaotic blur. I remember trying to learn as much as possible so that I could ask the doctors discerning questions and make sure we had a good plan. I remember trying to be better in mundane and practical ways, like suppressing the urge to start nagging arguments (“are you texting or are we talking??”), being flexible with our plans (and canceling on a dime, not my strong suit), ducking out of work events extra early, and even starting to do some dishes from time to time (j/k j/k). I tried to listen a lot, giving her the space to vent and be pissed off but not venturing too far into the depths of despair. We tried to keep some sense of normalcy: exercise when we could, dates when we could, compliments(!), bad jokes about anything but cancer. It was an attempt to be broadly supportive to the degree that I could, to carry some of this great burden, while knowing that I had to keep a check on myself to make sure that I wasn’t getting burned out.

I’m sure that I am not the only person out there who isn’t naturally inclined to lean on others for help, or who hasn’t built their relationships with traumatic events in mind. I feel like most grown men are pretty bad at this. But cancer is so big it practically holds up a flashing sign reading “DON’T TAKE THIS ON ALONE.” I did OK. I managed, thankful for all my family and friends that I could reach out to for support large and small, and I definitely still have some processing to do. You emerge from something like this more resolved than ever for relationships that will be there for the good times and the tough. 

It is only looking back on the ordeal that I realize how tiring it was, and how appreciative I am for the gradual lift towards full recovery (physical, emotional, psychological). I am so proud of Kelly for getting through everything, and for telling her story. I did my best to be there by her side. 

Hiked to the top of a mountain together, 2015

Little recs:

  • Go to every doctor’s visit if you can
  • Help coordinate support from fam & friends, like flowers, care packages and meals
  • Partner on the logistics/paperwork (insurance, scheduling, etc.) 
  • Aim for lots of light exercise (walk, hike, bike, etc.)
  • Call the doctors/centers on her behalf for any discomfort
  • Kit out your chemo visits (comfy blanket, water, lunch/snacks, book, tablet or phone with movies downloaded)
  • Remember: don’t leave your wife(!)


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