My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer about a month ago. It was a total shock, as it was discovered in her routine annual mammogram. She went in for her yearly check up on a Friday, the following Monday I was taking her to the Women’s Health Center for a biopsy, and a few days after that we met with her OB/GYN to get the biopsy results. A week after that she was in surgery. We went from never really thinking about this stuff to her having cancer in a period of about 90 minutes. There is no training for how to deal with this. There is also no training on how to deal with friends that are dealing with this.
One thing I’ve noticed is the difference in how my wife’s friends and my friends are dealing with the knowledge that she has breast cancer. Her phone pretty much beeps, buzzes, and rings from sunup until bedtime. Her friends, both local and far flung sorority sisters she hasn’t seen in person in 25 years, check in with her constantly to see how she is doing, and just to let her know they are thinking about her. Prior to this post, I’d told probably two dozen people that my wife has cancer, all but one of them guys. Neither of us has made any sort of public announcement, until now. The woman, and exactly two of the guys, have checked back in with me since the initial conversation.
I’m not trying to imply that guys care less. I’m not complaining about my friends. I have no doubt that if I messaged any of them about needing something they would jump on it immediately. We are middle age. My wife and I had kids young and thus we are empty nesters. Most of our friends still have kids at home, and we are all in the prime earning years in our careers. Everybody is busy, and nobody has enough time for their own families, let alone extra cycles for our problems. We are at that age where health problems start to become more real, but not old enough that we all have several cycles of experience dealing with this stuff. I don’t want to get into a debate about women versus men and compassion and sympathy, or gender roles and expectations. I’m sure all that plays a role here. I’m also sure the fear of a “How is she doing?” text being answered with bad news is real. People probably think I’ve got enough to deal with, and don’t have time to be fielding update inquiries. Four weeks ago I’m pretty sure I would have had all those same thoughts.
With my wife fighting cancer, I feel like my job is to be the emotional rock for her to lean on. I’m Mr. Positive Mental Attitude, you are going to beat this, you are stronger than this cancer, etc. Any of you that know me in real life know that Mr. PMA is not my natural state. I’ve joked that staying so positive is mentally draining. I wasn’t actually joking about that. It is draining, especially when combined with trying to focus on my job 40+ hours per work, and the other stresses that real life tends to throw at us, often at the most inopportune times. I’m also doing all of this on less than ideal sleep, as I really haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since the diagnosis. Of course, none of that compares to the pressure my wife is under.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you know somebody that is supporting a partner or other loved one fighting cancer or some other crisis, go ahead and send the text or make the call asking how it’s going. If that person is local to you meet them out for a burger and a beer. They need it, they’ll appreciate it, and since guys are trained their entire lives to not let emotions make decisions for us, they probably aren’t going to tell you they need it.
And as long as I’m telling people what to do, if your partner isn’t getting her annual mammogram, insist that she does. My wife’s mammogram didn’t look that unusual. The breast surgeon said she wouldn’t have flagged it if she was looking at it in a vacuum. However, the software analysis that compared the image to last year’s image did see an an unexpected change, and it was that flag that set in motion the events that led to the diagnosis. Without annual testing we wouldn’t know she has cancer. She has no symptoms.
Because of the early diagnosis odds are good this story will have a happy ending. If “You don’t actually have cancer” is the best diagnosis, my wife’s diagnosis is probably second or third on the list of things you want to hear when you have breast cancer. This also means that friend of yours whose wife or sister is battling cancer right now probably needs that text or call way more than I ever did.
So do it. Now.
(cross posted to Medium