October 11, 2012

Love in the Time of Cancer: Boys to Men. ~ Susan Keats

How my man heroically loved me through my battle with breast cancer.

About a year ago my husband and I were on a plane flying to Florida. At some point I fell asleep and later awoke to find him chatting with a woman across the aisle.

I looked over and couldn’t help but see that she was beautiful.

While my hair was stubby, hers was long and flowing. My eyelashes were something on my wish list, but hers were long and fluttery around her pretty green eyes. It wasn’t that my husband was talking to her that caught my attention—it was the tight-fitting bandage on her left arm I immediately recognized a kindred spirit.

I was in the process of recovering from a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments from breast cancer. A bandage like that is worn if you have had lymph nodes removed. It helps to prevent fluid from accumulating in your arm. I was supposed to be wearing the same bandage while flying but I was going on vacation and was so sick of thinking about cancer.

Before long, my husband and I had switched seats and she was telling me her story. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. She was 35, and her husband left her.

Breast cancer is one of those diseases that separate the men from the boys. Turns out her husband fit into the boy category. Faced with a future without ta-tas to play with, he chose not to stick around.

I thought about her for days.

There was no question that my husband was not the kind of guy to take a hike when faced with adversity, but I was so self-absorbed during my whole cancer experience that I realized I had never asked him how any of it had affected him. From the day of my diagnosis, through my treatments and even now, my man has been my greatest support.

How did he cope with it all? I asked him if he had any thoughts on how to help other men who are faced with a similar situation. I must admit that after hearing his answers to my questions, I have an even deeper appreciation for the person he is. Here is what My Man had to say:

Me: So, when you found out I had breast cancer, what did you experience?

MM: Fear.

Me: What did you do to get rid of your fear?

MM: Feeling frightened was never taken out of the equation, but having tasks is a good way to partly suppress the fear. There is nothing worse than time on your hands in situations like this. Your situation intensified my desire to care for you. I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that you were as physically and mentally well cared for as possible. That meant being with you at appointments and facilitating getting those appointments for you sooner with the best doctors. My motivation is probably the same as other husbands who love their wives.

(See what I mean by separating the men from the boys?)

Me: So managing my care really helped you to feel that you were able to do something useful?

MM: Yes…but on the other hand you can go too far in trying to micromanage everything. Clearly your level of stress was higher than mine, but other than work, I really had nowhere to put my stress. That explains why I got shingles, which happened about three or four weeks into the diagnosis. I was pushing, pushing, pushing, not really able to care for myself in situations like ours. I’m not sure that you can really care for yourself, at least not in a proper fashion. You can try to get enough sleep, you can exercise, but like many men, the majority of my support system comes from my wife. I’m sure had I approached you in some way, you would have done what you could, but I’m not sure that would have been appropriate.

Me: I forgot that you had shingles!  That was terrible. That pretty much proves the connection between stress and illness. Ugh!

MM: I’m sure I set things up in such a way that I took on more responsibility for your health and prognosis than was possible. So perhaps I thought if I could get you in to see the right people fast enough I could make a sizeable difference in your outcome. I took it on as my personal responsibility to make sure you got better, but that was impossible for me to do. So what happened? I got shingles.

Me: I remember also that you had a lot of bad dreams.

MM: One of the possible times that I might have recharged should have been at night when I slept, but my dreams frequently centered around vampires or other predators that could not be killed. Despite my very bloody conflicts with them and having a great deal of personal power in these dreams, I could never seem to keep those creatures killed.

Me: Well, that’s not too hard to interpret…

MM: Right.

Me: What about the kids? I stayed in bed a lot. You also had to take care of them.

MM: We tried as a family to really pull together. I remember saying that we really had to keep the house clean and go out of our way to make things easier for you. I tried to be there as much as possible for them, but as I wasn’t present for myself in the way I needed to be, I don’t know if I was present for them in the way they needed me to be.

Me: Realistically though, what could you possibly have done differently?

MM: There are no solutions to the situation. There is no proper way to do things. It was more like, let’s muddle through as best we can, which really is what you have to do.

Me:  So, if you had advice to give, what would it be?

MM: Here’s what I would suggest to men who find themselves in this situation:

1. Exercise. It helps you to de-stress and reduce anger. If the exercise you choose is engrossing enough, it allows you to be mentally somewhere else. When I’m swimming, I’m surrounded by the blue of the water and all else is shut off. Or, when you were sick, going to karate and being on the dojo mat where you have to be fully present worked well for me.

2. Reach out to friends and family for support. You have to define who in your circle is emotionally available to you. It helps if they have been through a personal tragedy, because they will get it. Call and catch up with people.

3. Don’t be afraid of your wife’s baldness and scars. If you are and you find these changes distasteful, don’t show it. I hated to see you having to go through that. Changes were sudden. Scars are a constant reminder. I see them but I try not to think about them. What good does it do?

4. Don’t be afraid to discuss things with your spouse. Share what you’re feeling about what is happening and what your feelings are about your spouse. What is really important though is that you don’t want to make it about you overly much. Yes you are going through this as a couple, but it is your wife who is going through this as an individual. It’s her body. It’s her mortality. It’s not about how you feel, it is about her. This now comes back to why you need the extra support system and why I got shingles, because I didn’t reach out and I couldn’t reach out to my wife. I’m not sure that there is a universal guide to how far one can reach out to your spouse during something like this. It seems to me that my job is to help and then go lick my wounds in private. Is that entirely healthy? I don’t know. Or lick your wounds with someone else, a friend.

5. If your relationship is not strong to begin with, it will be a much harder to process everything. You hear about people like John Edwards who…well,  don’t be like John Edwards.

Me: Were there any life lessons in all of this for you?

MM: In my perspective, nothing good came of this. It was rotten and thank god we are where we are at now.

Me: Yes, I’m glad we got through it. What would I ever do without you?

MM: You are asking the question the wrong way…


Susan Keats received life-changing news in 2010 after a routine mammogram. She had breast cancer. After plenty of tears, anxiety and soul-searching, she finished treatments and is now entering a year of renewal, growth, and recovery. Susan hopes that those who are just stepping into the experience of illnesses or crises will find the same comfort and inspiration that she felt when others shared their experiences and wisdom with her. Susan’s writing has appeared in numerous online publications including TheSucculentwife.com and Betterafter50.com. 



Editor: Lori Lothian


Like elephant Love on Facebook.



Read 5 Comments and Reply

Read 5 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490