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Two Husbands Devastated by Wives Cancer

Published on Wednesday, July 22, 2015
C.S.: “A broken leg you understand; but breast cancer – I asked ‘Why’? and silently, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

It was over a period of two weeks – a mammogram and a biopsy -- that C.S. and his wife learned she had breast cancer. “Those are just overwhelming words to hear,” says C.S. “I know I had no words at first, just utter silence. Then I asked ‘Why? She’s in perfect health. It just can’t be.’

C.S.: “I’m thinking: ‘How are we going to deal with something like this?’

“This could have been, maybe still is, a death sentence. And an hour after learning the diagnosis, she got into a car and headed to Indianapolis to help her sister’s family. I didn’t want her to go, but she felt she needed to be there. And she insisted someone had to stay with Walter, our cat. I kept thinking what she must be going through, and how devastating this must be for her – to know her own diagnosis and to be in the midst of a terminal situation. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I got a friend to fly me to Indianapolis. Once I was there with her, I was fine, even though there was nothing I could do.

“When we went to the physician the next week to talk about treatment regimens, I felt helpless. It was her decision to make. In my mind, I pictured a little kid hanging onto a ledge with his bare knuckles and I could quite get to him. I had no idea what to suggest as a first course of treatment. I felt a little better that her tumor had been reviewed by a cancer tumor board, where many opinions are offered. The suggestion was she get a lumpectomy.

“They took additional lymph nodes as part of the lumpectomy. And then the news, ‘I can’t say for sure we got all the cancer. I think your wife should consider a mastectomy just to be sure. It was very, very hard to keep my emotions in check because I love my wife so much, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her. Then, I think to myself, ‘Here I am. I’ve made this a catastrophe and she hasn’t even had the mastectomy yet.

“Earlier in the year, I had also experienced a health problem. I was at work, and the next thing I know, I’m lying flat on a concrete floor. I never even felt myself fall. By then, folks had called EMS, and I was rushed to the hospital. They found I had an artery blockage and needed two stents. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening. I work out three times a week. I eat healthy.’ But there I was, in cardiac rehab, and it took all summer for me to recover.

“Just about the time my wife was to go in for her mastectomy, I started feeling ill. My heart started skipping beats. I’m back in the hospital to get a pacemaker. They discharged me the day my wife was to schedule her mastectomy. It was almost surreal.

“I played a whole guilt trip on myself for not being there for her. I look back now, and I think because I kept all my feelings inside, I let stress get to me. I wanted to stay upbeat for my wife, and yet if it could have been me to have the mastectomy and the chemotherapy, I would gladly have taken her place. It’s so hard to watch someone you love who is suffering, and there’s nothing you really can do – except be there.

“The chemotherapy was hard. But I finally started to take a clinical look at what was happening: ‘They’re pumping poison, essentially, to attack the cancer cells, and it’s going to have an effect on the entire body. And I know it isn’t going to last.

“Still, I think men want to feel useful – to do something, anything. She didn’t require a lot of care, because she wanted to do that herself. The more she let me do for her, the more useful I felt. Mostly, it was the household routine – cooking, cleaning, and taking care of Walter. Of course, Walter hardly left her side during the entire time she was recovering.

“As my wife gained strength, I started going out a little – to the grocery, to work out. I think she felt my trips out meant she was getting better because I was getting back into my old routine.

“I thought I knew myself pretty well, but I really learned a lot from this experience. I always thought about my actions and what I said, and how it would be interpreted. I tried not to hover because I knew that would distress her.

“I surprised myself. I never thought of myself as a very emotional person, but almost a year later, there are times when I choke up. I think I’ve become far more tolerant. I don’t let little things get to me. I know we appreciate each other even more. She still worries about the physical part, and not being the same person. I say, ‘You’re here, and that’s all I care about.

“I think it’s hard for men to talk about a subject like breast cancer, even with other men. I can tell men who learn their wives have breast cancer – ‘It’ll be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and it will be the most emotional time in your life. Because there’s nothing you can do but just be there for her, and love her.”

C.H.: “There’s disbelief, terror, and the best case scenario could be lousy…”

“I wanted to go right into the ‘fix-it’ mode. The most difficult thing was realizing there wasn’t anything I could really fix. So, I move into second gear: What can we do to help, to be as positive as possible? There’s that unrelenting reality – nothing may work. There’s a tendency to go into a state where we’re unable to do, say, or handle anything.

“I think it’s a ‘fall-back’ position to think everything’s going to be OK. And, most of the time, we held the middle ground. I tried to be there every time, not to advise unless asked, to listen and let my wife make the decisions. We told our children. It wasn’t easy; they were terrified. Their grandfather was in a hospital dying of cancer. Before my wife finished chemotherapy, two grandpas would die, one quickly and unexpectedly. Two funerals in a week. But they saw that life goes on, that my wife kept going and they were active in the helping and healing process.”

“They recommend surgery for tumors over 2 cm, because those tend to be more aggressive. We found out half a centimeter can make a big difference. The biopsy became a ‘lumpectomy’ in the hands of a wonderful surgeon. Although the nodes were negative, my wife faced radiation or chemotherapy. We thought ‘we want the best.’ The family doctor and surgeon both recommended an oncologist. We were told Dr. Elizabeth Layhe was booked solid, but she made time for us. My wife and Dr. Layhe decided on chemotherapy over radiation.

“The chemo she had to take was the worst. It’s a long, hard process, even with only four cycles, and it can affect other major organ systems. She was such a trooper. She lost all her hair, she threw up, and it seems she was drinking all the water in the city. And she made it through. Doing all this upped her long-term survival chances by 10-20%.

“My wife did a lot of the making up with words what I was thinking. It had to be in the back of her mind that my first wife died of cancer. So, we really were in separate worlds. She’s inside herself and I can’t be part of what she’s doing through. I tried not to burden her with anything that wasn’t positive. We have an external family dynamic, where my wife has always been the mediator for others. We both decided she had neither the energy nor the will to play that role. I admit I played the bad guy in screening her calls. She didn’t need to be solving anyone else’s problems.

“I didn’t talk to very many people about it, unless someone specifically asked. And, I was pretty minimal in my responses. I did talk a little at work because two co-workers are survivors. Still, it didn’t seem an appropriate place to talk about my part in it. Sometimes nothing bothered me, but my threshold varied. My philosophy is: ‘Life is short; it would be a shame to miss it. So, let’s get busy doing what we need to do.’ I guess I leaned most on my wife’s brother. When I just needed to escape, I hid in the basement when everyone else was asleep and played on the computer.

“Despite my lack of communication – people, neighbors, our kids’ friends’ parents, many people from my wife’s workplace – showed up with enough food to feed an army. Cards came by the bundleload. My wife’s friends just showed up to talk to her. It was both wonderful and amazing. It was also interesting who didn’t show up. In this kind of situation, you learn who’s really in your corner. And I was absolutely stunned by the number of women who’d had breast cancer and spoke to me about it.

“When you’re hit with something this devastating, it forces you to think about priorities. We’ve both changed. I think we’re both more inclined to say ‘no’ to invitations. If my wife doesn’t feel up to it, we don’t go. We take more vitamins. We decided I would take an ‘early-out’ retirement from the State. I’ll be here for the kids, who are middle-schoolers, and my wife, so happy to be able to go back to work, will continue teaching for a few more years. She’s see how her energy holds up. I feel like we’re dealing with the aftermath, together, as survivors. It’s part of who we are now, and we’re 180 degrees from where we were six months ago. We’ll do the important and the simple things, living and loving every moment.”