Coping With Breast Cancer
Copyright © 2011
By Ricky Sides
Edited by Frankie Sutton
Cover art by Jason Merrick
I’d like to dedicate this to my wonderful wife, Sue, who agreed to let me tell our story in the hopes that it might help other couples who have to go through similar experiences as they battle this dread disease.
I’d be remiss not to mention all the wonderful health care professionals who worked so hard on my wife’s case and wish to dedicate it to them as well.
I also dedicate it to my editor, Frankie Sutton, who prodded me into revealing a bit more about my feeling than I’d previously revealed and then worked hard to help me express such emotional issues in a clear manner. You greatly improved this piece.
Thank you Jason Merrick for the fine cover that you created. Your cover captures the spirit of the piece.
I’d also like to dedicate it to Jackie Black who is referenced in the piece. Jackie was an invaluable ally in my wife’s battle with breast cancer. Sadly, Jackie succumbed to cancer in 2004.
Most of all, I dedicate it to our wonderful support group who stood by us faithfully through it all. That support group was composed of our families and friends. Sometimes saying thank you just isn’t enough. It doesn’t encompass the heartfelt gratitude that I bear in my heart to this day. I’ll never be able to adequately thank you all.
In the fall of 1994, we were living the good life. We’d just bought our dream house from my parents and moved into it the previous July. We were bursting with joy in the anticipation of spending our first holiday season in our new home. After seventeen years of marriage, we finally owned the home we never even dreamed we’d have, but always wanted Afternoons and weekends were busy as we rearranged the home to make it our own. I spent much of my time working outside to clear the old stumps that marred the surface here and there.
Our fourteen-year-old son was overjoyed with his new home. The house, an old renovated church, was huge when compared to the other home we had lived in all his life. The large, acre and a quarter yard with its majestic old oak trees delighted him.
Sue was especially thrilled with our new home and she spent much of her afternoon hours cleaning and arranging things in the house until she had everything decorated to her taste. She also seemed to take a bigger delight in preparing our meals in her new kitchen, often going to considerable effort in the process. It seemed to me that her cooking skills improved dramatically, but maybe it was just that I was working so hard in the yard that I had a greater appetite.
At the time when we should have been at our happiest, we had a dark cloud hanging over us. Little did we know that the dark cloud was about to burst.
Sue had lost a considerable amount of weight and I was beginning to become concerned. I don’t think I would describe myself as being extremely worried at that point. I just didn’t think the weight loss was healthy.
One night I entered the bathroom as she was stepping out of the shower. I wanted to talk to her about my next home improvement project that I’d just thought up. I wanted to get her feedback on the idea. As Sue was towel drying her hair, I talked to her about the new project. As I said, I had noticed how thin she was getting, but attributed it to months of the bustling activity in the home. However, when she raised her arms to dry her hair, I could literally count her ribs. In a loving but firm manner, I told her of my concerns about her rapid weight loss. I had mentioned the matter in passing a couple of times during the preceding weeks. However, this was the first time I suggested she make an appointment with her doctor. During this time, I also noted that my wife had a mysterious bloody discharge from one breast, so I suggested that there might be a link to the weight loss and the discharge.
My wife was reluctant to agree to go to a doctor, but I was worried, so I grew insistent. It was unusual for me to be demanding of my wife. That was something I just never did because we base our marriage on respect and consideration for each other. However, Sue recognized that it was a true concern and fear for her health that caused such insistence on my part. Although, I didn’t want her to worry unnecessarily, I think my worry caused her to begin to share my concerns to some extent. Finally, I managed to get a promise from her that she would see her physician the day after Thanksgiving, which was just a few days away.
The day after Thanksgiving, true to her word, we got into her car for the drive to the doctor, never suspecting that our lives were about to be forever changed. All the way there, I kept hoping the doctor would tell us that my worries were unfounded.
After the nurse escorted my wife to the examination rooms, I sat in gynecologist’s waiting room. I settled back in the chair thinking it would be a while, but after only a few minutes, Sue came back. When I looked at her, my heart stopped, she looked scared and pale. Sue told me that the doctor said she must go to the hospital at once for a mammogram and that the doctor was calling ahead to make sure she was tested right away.
We were traveling in Sue’s Omni so she had automatically gotten behind the wheel to drive, just as she always did when we travelled in her car. On the drive to the hospital, she suddenly broke down and started to cry. I had her pull over to the side of the road so I could take over driving. As we sat on the side of the road with passing traffic buffeting our car, Sue expressed her fears, saying, “The doctor told me it might be breast cancer.”
I can tell you now that when you hear the words, breast cancer, in relation to your wife for the first time, you will find they are the scariest, most terrifying words you will ever hear. Even as I tried to reassure her, I knew the color must have drained from my face. My mind went numb, and all I could think to say was, “I don’t think she could know that. You were only in there a few minutes. I’ll drive us to the hospital. You’ll see, I think she’s wrong.” But even as I spoke those clumsy words of comfort, I think Sue saw the truth in my eyes, and the truth was that I was terrified.
The doctor had indeed made the arrangements as she had said and the hospital staff was expecting my wife’s arrival. Almost immediately, the staff whisked her back into the radiology area where she underwent her first mammography at age 35.
I waited tensely, not yet comprehending what was happening. I didn’t even know what a mammogram was at the time, beyond the knowledge that it was some sort of
X-ray procedure. My head was reeling, almost as if I had way too much alcohol to drink. Looking back at it now, I was probably in a sort of state of shock. Nervously, I thumbed through some brochures sitting in a rack in the waiting room, trying to gain an insight into what was happening to my wife. However, I couldn’t really concentrate on the information they contained; my mind started wandering.
I felt a nervous chill as I thought of how happy she’d been in recent months in our new home. I couldn’t remember a time when she had been happier. It just didn’t seem fair that a disease would spoil that happiness. As I continued trying to study the brochures, a task made even harder with my watery eyes, I told myself that there had to be some mistake. The doctor was wrong. My wife could not have breast cancer. I wanted to scream at someone, No way, not my Sue!
The wait was not very long. Sue came into the waiting room and she told me that we now had to go to see another doctor in the city.
With an ever-growing sense of dread, we headed to our car and drove to the next doctor’s office. We scheduled an appointment to see the doctor the next day, signed and filled out tons of paperwork in preparation for that visit, and then we left.
Still not sure of what we were dealing with, we went home and decided to wait about contacting the family until we knew something definite that we could share with them.
We were on pins and needles the next day on our way to the new doctor’s office. By now, I had convinced myself that this was all a huge mistake and that the physician was wrong. Again I told myself that my wife couldn’t possibly have breast cancer. In the doctor’s office my wife was examined and then the doctor showed us the mammogram. He explained that it was suspicious. He wanted to do a procedure called needle aspiration. The procedure involves piercing the breast with a long needle and extracting a small sample of the lump. Experts who can confirm whether the sample is cancerous or benign then examine the sample. I decided to wait outside for that procedure. It’s probably best that I did because Sue screamed in pain as the doctor performed the painful procedure. I heard her crying out while I waited in the hall.
We went home that afternoon. Shortly after we arrived, Sue came into the dining room and stood in front of the gas heater near my desk where I was working on a file on my word processor. I turned and saw her standing there with tears streaming down her face. I stood up from my chair, wrapped my arms around her, and we embraced each other. As I held her, great wracking sobs tore at her frail body, so I loosened my grip and stroked the back of her head. I spoke words of reassurance, but they did little to calm her terrified mind. When she’d cried herself out and her tears had slowed to a trickle, we began to talk about the situation. In hindsight, I know that both of us were in a state of denial. I know now that it is a natural reaction to what we were going through. We had even convinced ourselves that this was all a big mistake or that the greedy doctors were just milking our insurance. Sue found that line of rationalization better than the truth, so for her it was a bit calming. However, the thought of doctors tormenting my wife to make a buck infuriated me. I felt confident that at some point they would admit their error and tell us that she did not have cancer. Remembering Sue’s cry of pain earlier in the day, I was also incensed that anyone would put a woman through such a painful procedure as a needle aspiration when they should know damned well from the mammogram that it wasn’t cancer. I’m ashamed to admit that reaction, but it’s the truth and just goes to show you the desperation of our denial. When it’s your wife going through this nightmare, you will grasp at any thread of hope you can find.
The doctor’s office called and asked us to return to discuss the needle aspiration results. The report confirmed that my wife had breast cancer. Now, we had to accept it. The doctor laid out her options patiently and as kindly as possible. I remember Sue’s nails digging into my palm as I held her hand while we listened.
I was feeling a sense of panic and my thoughts were muddled with fear for my wife. When he finished speaking, I realized that I must have missed something and looked at him as I asked him to repeat the question.
“I was asking which option you wanted to pursue,” the doctor replied kindly.
I had to say, “I’m sorry, Doctor, but I don’t think we really absorbed all of that. Would you mind explaining it again?” To his credit, the doctor kindly repeated my wife’s options without a trace of irritation over our lack of concentration. This is one of those times where you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. The doctor will know that it is a lot to absorb and that the husband must be the support lifeline, therefore, you need to comprehend the situation.
When he finished I looked to my wife but she shook her head and said, “I don’t want to decide this right now.”
I didn’t think it good to put off the decision because the doctor had indicated that the cancer was the rapid-spreading variety and I was ready to press her. The doctor, seeing my anxiousness, interceded and prevented me from interfering when he said that she didn’t have to decide immediately. He scheduled an appointment to see her in two days and we left. During the drive home, Sue asked me to repeat her options and I did the best I could to explain them to her. However, I could tell from the glassy eyed expression on her face that none of what I was saying was sinking into her awareness. For the first time, I admitted to myself that my wife had cancer. It was a mind numbing experience, made worse by the fact that she didn’t just have breast cancer. She had a fast spreading form of the disease. We were both terrified, not only of the known but the unknown as well. There is no guidebook to tell you how to react to the life-altering news that your wife has a deadly disease in her body. How do you cope with something that could take your wife and son’s mother away from you?
That night, we discussed my wife’s options and you can believe me when I say, there is no easy choice. She could opt for a double mastectomy, which would be the removal of both breasts. Another option was the single mastectomy, which would only remove the affected breast. The final option was to perform a lumpectomy that would remove the cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue surrounding the lump. I’m afraid I wasn’t very useful in the conversation. I was terrified that I would give the wrong advice, so when she asked me; I simply told her that it was her decision to make and explained each option to her. The explanations were necessary because in the shock of everything that had happened, she was not processing the information clearly, much like me earlier at the doctor’s office.
The double mastectomy would ensure that she never had a recurrence of breast cancer. The single mastectomy would guarantee that she never had a recurrence in the affected breast. The lumpectomy would remove the cancer, followed by chemotherapy and then radiation therapy. However, with the lumpectomy, there would always be a chance of recurrence.
After going over her options, I told her that my only goal was her health and her continued presence in our son’s life and mine. I would support any decision that she made since it was her body, but the selfish part of me hoped my wife would elect to take the least radical option. That way the healthy portion of her breast would remain. Nevertheless, even as shocked and mind numbed as I was at that point, I refused to tell her my true feelings in the matter. In all honesty, I should reveal that I was terrified that if I told her what I wanted her to do and it ended with a recurrence, then it would be my fault. It was my fear which kept me from revealing my own selfish desire in the matter and not some sense that by keeping those feelings to myself, I was performing an act of noble self-sacrifice. I told myself that if I had something wrong with one finger on my hand, I’d not want doctors amputating the entire hand. However, deep down, I was ashamed of myself and mentally chastised myself for such selfish thoughts. I struggled with that feeling of guilt until my wife recovered. Hell, I still struggle with it, even though time has seemed to verify that she made the right decision.
She eliminated the double mastectomy as too extensive at that point and we then discussed the remaining options again. After a lengthy discussion, she decided that she wanted to go with the lumpectomy and follow-up treatments. I supported her decision because the doctor had assured us that if she opted for that procedure and there was a recurrence, her odds would be the same as the odds she was currently facing.
That night we broke the news to our respective families, both of whom were shocked to hear that my wife was now battling cancer. Just like anyone else in this situation, we needed the support system that our families could give us and they did not fail us. When my wife faltered and handed me the phone I explained the options the doctor had given us. Some family members questioned the wisdom of the option that she had selected, but I defended her choice pointing out what the doctor had said regarding the odds. I also used the analogy that had occurred to me earlier by pointing out that if I had an injured finger I’d want it amputated and not the entire hand, so I could understand my wife’s position.
No one actually said it, but I had a sense that perhaps some thought I had persuaded her to take an option that would retain the greater portion of the affected breast. It might just have been my own guilt causing me to feel that way. It bothered me a little, but I knew it wasn’t true because I’d been too afraid to state my preference. Therefore, I couldn’t be guilty of pressuring her in that manner. Although I wanted her to elect the option she chose, I would have accepted my wife’s decision for the double mastectomy because her figure wasn’t my primary concern. My chief concern was that I would lose my wife, and that thought scared me more than any other. Compared to that loss, anything was preferable. I spoke to her at that point, suggesting that maybe she should have a mastectomy, since so many in the family thought that it would be wiser, but at that stage she was opposed to the idea and I breathed a mental sigh of relief. Let me make this clear. If I had truly thought that it was required to save her life, I would have gladly embraced the concept of the double mastectomy. But at that stage I didn’t believe that was the case, and felt that the families were overreacting. They were older and remembered the horror stories of victims from prior years before the modern advances that were just coming into practice. Rationally, I could relate to her desire to preserve as much of her body as possible.
The day my wife had her lumpectomy we were both overwhelmed by the support of the family members who were in attendance and sat in the large waiting room while she underwent the surgery. It wasn’t just our immediate family either. Some of my aunts were there as was my stepfather’s sister. I can’t overemphasize the importance of the support system and what it means to you as the time drags by in a waiting room. Their presence meant that there was little time to permit my imagination to plague me. While we were waiting, several different family members volunteered to help in different ways. Some promised to bring food by the house so that we wouldn’t have to worry about our meals. Others volunteered to come do the housecleaning. I think from my perspective, the most important thing they did to help was just to be there and let us know how much they cared. Keeping me from going insane during the wait was a close second.
The doctor had informed us that they would do the lumpectomy and then do an axillary lymph node dissection. This procedure involves the removal of the lymph nodes from beneath the arm of the affected side of the body. Pathology dissects and examines them to determine whether the cancer has spread.
When the doctor finally came to the waiting room to see me, I was a nervous wreck. He informed me that my wife had come through the surgery just fine and was in recovery where she would remain for a while under the careful observation of the staff. After that, the nurses would take her to her room. Then the doctor gave me the bad news. Several of the lymph nodes showed evidence that the cancer had spread. My wife had the fast spreading invasive cancer.
If not for the support of our families, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the next hour. My wife’s oldest sister stepped forward and asked all the right questions as my mind reeled in shock from the news. She then patiently explained to me what the next steps would entail as my mind had stopped registering the doctor’s words at some point.
When my wife was wheeled out of recovery, I walked beside her bed and held her hand as she was wheeled through the halls. Flowers had arrived in her room while she was in surgery. The people at her factory had chipped in and sent a nice bouquet and an eloquent card that expressed their support for my wife. I remember that she cried as she read the card.
Finally, the moment I had dreaded came when my wife asked me what the doctor had said to me about her surgery. Some of the family members had suggested that I keep the truth from her until she felt better. I was considering taking their advice, but as she looked into my eyes, I could tell that she saw the truth on my face and in my eyes. At that point, we had been married for seventeen years and my wife and I had always been honest with each other. Therefore, I decided it was only fair that I tell her the whole truth. I told her exactly what the doctor reported to me and of course, she cried.
Once more, Sue’s oldest sister was an invaluable ally as she reassured my wife that the doctor’s report was not a death sentence. The doctor told us he was fairly certain that the cancer had not spread beyond the lymph nodes.
We could not have asked for better nurses than we had the hospital during my wife’s overnight stay. They were wonderful and supportive of both of us. One of the nurses taught me how to strip the drain tube attached to my wife’s breast to prevent it from stopping up. This was my first experience at assisting personally in my wife’s medical care, so of course I was nervous. There would be many more instances of this during my wife’s recovery.
On the second day of my wife’s recovery, the factory where she worked telephoned our home. There were some forms they needed for her medical leave that I needed to pick up and complete. On the way to pick up those forms and turn in my wife’s work uniforms, I stopped at a market and purchased a thank you card. Into that card I inserted a typed letter explaining to the people just how their thoughtful gift of flowers and the card had lifted Sue’s spirits. And indeed that was true. The tears she’d shed when reading the card were from a sense of joy and awe that her coworkers held her in such high esteem.
The receptionist in the factory asked me to wait while she went to get the personnel
manager. The personnel manager was a warm and friendly lady who immediately inquired as to my wife’s condition. I told the lady that she was on the mend but that she was still in a great deal of discomfort from the surgery. She gave me the papers that would have to be signed and filled out. She had gone to the trouble of filling out most of the paperwork for us. I thanked her for her kindness and the card and flowers.
I then gave the personnel manager the card, which she read and handed to the receptionist to read as she read the letter that I had enclosed. Her eyes clouded with tears as she read the letter and I knew she’d reached the point where I’d described the moment of joy their thoughtful gift had brought to an otherwise gloomy day. She shared the letter with the receptionist who reacted in similar fashion.
I thanked them both and asked that they inform my wife’s coworkers as to her condition and her gratitude for their thoughtfulness. I reference this incident because it was an awakening of awareness for both my wife and me. Neither of us really understood the esteem with which our friends, family and coworkers held us until that week. It was a moving experience, which helped reinforce in our minds that we were not so alone and alienated from our friends and families as we had first thought would be the case as we battled the disease.
A week after the surgery my wife visited her surgeon for a follow-up appointment. It was at this meeting that the surgeon told us he had good news. The cancer was hormone-receptive and therefore he recommended hormonal therapy. Of course I had no idea what this meant and he had to explain it all. He recommended Tamoxifen to be taken for five years after the chemotherapy course was completed. The doctor assured us that this was very good news as it is easier to prevent a recurrence of a hormone-receptive cancer. He also scheduled my wife for her first appointment with the oncologist in the neighboring city of Huntsville, Alabama.
Our first trip into the Huntsville oncology facility was simply amazing. To this day I can’t forget the quality of the professionals who work in that section of the medical community. The doctor was great, but the protocol nurse was simply an angel. Indeed the entire staff worked diligently to treat patients who are more frightened than they have ever been in their lives, and on that score, we were no exception. Their approach in my wife’s case was to calmly work us through everything step by step.
The protocol nurse advised her that she might want to look into a turban or wig, as the chemotherapy treatments which she would be taking were strong and the treatments would cause hair loss. A week later we returned to oncology for my wife’s first chemotherapy session. We’d heard all the horror stories about how sick these treatments make the patients and it was with a great sense of dread that my wife took her first treatment, which was administered via IV.
I remember trying to cheer her up by talking quietly to her as the small IV bag dripped the medication into her body. I even managed to make another patient smile as I told my wife a joke I’d recently heard and saved to use upon that otherwise solemn occasion. It’s funny, some of the little things I remember. I also recall wondering as I watched the IV drip if those stories I’d heard were true.
Prior to that first chemotherapy treatment, Sue had begun to recover enough to want to do some light housework and cooking. It took a call to her sisters before I was able to stop her from attempting housecleaning chores, but we compromised on the cooking. She cooked while I did the heavy lifting and dishwashing. Her spirits seemed lifted as she became more active in the home, and she began to talk about returning to work. I was opposed to that because she was so weak from everything that she’d endured to that point. After the dinner was finished, she readily admitted that I was right and she was still too weak to return to her job. I reassured her that she’d get to return to work when all this was over, and she let the matter drop. But it was a point of contention that came up again several times. I finally figured out that the base of the problem was money. She was accustomed to earning her own, and didn’t have that source of income while she was off on medical leave. I would give her what I could, but my income was gone almost before it reached me, so there was little to share.
We were greatly encouraged in the days following that first chemotherapy session. Though my wife felt a bit queasy, there was none of the debilitating sickness that we’d heard so much about. We had yet to learn that the chemotherapy would have a cumulative affect and that the sickness would get geometrically worse with each successive treatment. Soon enough we would experience that reality check.
During this period of time my wife’s sisters and nieces were a Godsend. They came to our home to help out in a major way with deep cleaning everything in the place. This was necessary because of the breakdown of a patient’s immune system after losing so many lymph nodes and taking chemotherapy. Everything has to be as sanitary as humanly possible. Never being the greatest of house cleaners, I did what I could after work of course, but my efforts were terribly inadequate to our needs for perfection. My sister and mother also helped with the cleaning and often brought in meals as did my wife’s sisters to ensure that we had decent food while I experimented and learned to cook acceptable food. My wife had gone from surgical recovery to chemotherapy and was weak. None of us wanted her attempting housework or cooking if it was preventable.
During this time frame I also learned to do the shopping and do it right. This was a duty that my wife had always considered her domain and I seldom ventured into a grocery store for more than a handful of items. I didn’t know where anything was and had to learn everything. I also learned to wash and dry the clothes and of course put everything away. These were tasks she normally took care of, but I found them pleasant and to this day still do the washing and drying, but she puts the clothes away citing that I never have learned to do this task to her satisfaction.
We continued to make the trips to Huntsville oncology every two weeks for the treatments and with each successive treatment the side effects grew progressively worse. As I recall it was just before the third chemotherapy treatment that my wife’s hair began to fall out. Two days later I shaved her head. She cried as I cut her lovely hair down to the scalp in preparation for the shaving. With an aching heart, I assured her that it would come back. When we finished with her I shaved my own head in moral support and then our fifteen-year-old son volunteered to make it unanimous and his support was strictly unsolicited.
We had purchased a wig through a beauty shop just a quarter mile down the road from our home. The beautician was a kind hearted woman and is a family friend. She got the wig for us at her cost. My wife wore the wig out in public but preferred a turban when she was home.
Soon after this incident, the chemotherapy side effects that we’d thought weren’t going to be so bad got much, much worse. My wife would be incredibly sick the first and second nights after a session. Neither of us got much sleep at night and I can still close my eyes and hear her groans of misery. Perhaps this is why to this day if she is down with a cold and groans at night I immediately awaken and check on her.
Sue began to complain of a foul smell emanating from her skin but I assured her that I
could smell nothing unusual. At first I couldn’t detect the odor she was referencing, but that soon changed. I never did tell her that there was a bad scent associated with the chemotherapy. She was miserable enough without thinking that her scent could offend people. It never offended me of course. I understood the source of the odor and that was frankly one worry she could do without. It is worth noting that our fifteen-year-old son did reference an aroma once in her presence. As my wife looked at him I shook my head, gesturing for him to be quiet and blamed the odor on my cooking, which come to think of it, might well have been the source of what he smelled.
After the first few chemotherapy sessions, my wife’s surgeon recommended that she have a shunt embedded in her chest for the administering of the medication. This was necessary because the powerful drug was literally damaging her veins through which the chemotherapy was being administered. The surgery to implant this device in my wife’s upper chest region seemed to be harder on her than the original surgery. The recuperation also seemed to be more difficult for her.
At around the midpoint of my wife’s chemotherapy I began to run low on my remaining vacation days. I had managed to use them carefully by working most days and taking vacation days only the first two days after the chemotherapy and of course in the aftermath of the surgeries. Our brother-in-law who was married to my wife’s sister understood the situation and he stepped forward volunteering to take my wife to the doctor’s appointments and for chemotherapy, thus allowing me to work and keep ends met to a degree. Our bill structure was pretty much tied to a dual income and with the loss of my wife’s income things were beginning to get tough. My parents helped by waiving one of the house payments on the home we’d bought from them.
With my brother-in-law stepping in to assist, I managed to keep us afloat somehow. Once more, the assistance of our families was a Godsend. It seemed every time they visited they brought in groceries and household cleaning supplies. Sue’s oldest sister, Carolyn, and the one next to my wife in age named Christine were fantastic. God bless them for their kindness. I will never forget what they did for us and would do anything for either of them. Christine is the mother of the nieces who helped with the cleaning and the wife of the brother-in-law who was himself a cancer survivor. His moral support for us was incredibly beneficial. Jackie was without a doubt the kindest, most unselfish and giving man I’ve ever known. Sadly the disease came back in his case and he passed away a few years back. My wife never forgot his kindness and would visit him to try to cheer him up and lend her moral support. She was devastated when he passed away. Everyone who knew that gentleman was devastated.
There were a battery of other medical tests from CT scans and an MRI to x-rays and blood work. My brother-in-law took my wife to many of these tests so that I could continue to save as much time off as possible. These tests were necessary to determine if the cancer had spread to other organs.
The last two chemotherapy sessions were by far the worst. My wife had a total of eight of these treatments but after the seventh, I was not at all certain she would take the final treatment. She was tired of being so sick and miserable after the treatments and was ready to say enough.
This turn of events terrified me because we had been assured that if she took all of the treatments and medications, there was a good chance of affecting a cure. Yet at the height of her sickness after the treatment, she was adamant that the seventh would be the last. Fortunately, she had a change of heart as she got better after a few days. The last chemotherapy after effects was devastating. I lost track of the times that she threw up and getting her to eat anything at all was very difficult. I couldn’t even tempt her with the popsicles which had comforted her after several of the treatments.
A few days after that final treatment, we got a call from oncology. My wife’s white blood cell count was down and they needed us to come in for a supply of injections which I was to give her daily to build her blood back up.
We were on Church Street, about a quarter mile from the oncology building when a wave of nausea hit my wife and she asked me to pull over so she could throw up. I immediately slowed and was looking for a place to pull off the road, but before I could stop she threw open her door and leaned precariously out to vomit. I grabbed her by the arm to keep her from falling out of the car as I brought it to a stop. In the rearview mirror, I saw a police squad car and figured they’d stop, but they just drove around us.
In the oncology facility one of the nurses patiently worked with me to teach me step by step how I was to administer the premeasured injections, then under her supervision I gave my wife her first injection of this drug. I think giving her that first injection is probably one of the hardest things I had to do during her treatment phase. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was cause my wife pain or discomfort but you do what you have to do for those you love. Someone had to give her the injections and at least if I stepped up and took care of that she could have them at home where she was most comfortable. I was able to do what was required though I never did get over the paranoia regarding breaking a needle. Thank goodness that never happened. We were both greatly relieved the day that I gave her the last injection.
In the aftermath of the chemotherapy there came a brief period of time of recuperation and then the radiation therapy began. I took her to the first and the afore-mentioned brother-in-law took her to several. By now I had used all of my available vacation and my personnel manager had me take family medical leave for the time needed to take care of my wife after her last surgery. The last surgery that my wife had was the one to have the embedded shunt removed. The surgery was hard on her. The recuperation took longer than her original surgery or so it seemed to me.
Through all of this, our families were supportive and I don’t see how we could have gotten through it without them. I think a special bond formed between my wife’s family and me during this ordeal. I believe a deep mutual respect developed. A respect that was much deeper than normal.
The same is true for the relationship that my wife has with my family, all of whom were as stricken by stark fear as was I when I first learned of my wife’s cancer.
Sue resisted all efforts on the part of the medical community to get her into a support group because no support groups included the spouses. I encouraged her to go and not worry about me, but she was adamant that outside the medical community, I had been her caregiver and most closely shared her experiences. She insisted that together we would get through the aftermath just as we had faced the ordeal. With strong family support this was possible for us. In her thinking, we already had a support group. A support team that had been there for her from the beginning and it was one that didn’t exclude the spouse. This is not meant to be a criticism of support groups. They do great work. I reference it only because the spousal exclusion was the reason that my wife never officially joined a support group. I wish she had done so. I’m sure that there were things that such a group would have been able to assist her with when it comes to dealing with issues related to breast cancer. But my wife had been through so much that I was unwilling to press the issue.
Then the Tamoxifen hormonal pill treatments began. Tamoxifen has several side effects but the one that was most notable in my wife’s case were the wild mood swings. The first two years were the worst. It got bad a few times but I do not regret those times. She was taking a medication that could prevent a recurrence and possibly save her life. Therefore, our son and I tolerated any inconvenience good-naturedly because we knew it was the medication causing the mood swings. She is worth far more to us, than being upset over a few sharp comments. I mention this as a caution to men whose wives are taking that medication. If they suffer mood swings then always remember it’s the medication causing this. Be patient. I promise that phase won’t last.
Let me state here and now for the record that every member of the medical community involved in my wife’s treatment were kindhearted professionals who never did anything but their best for her.
Early detection is the key to surviving breast cancer.
It is possible to survive breast cancer. The key to survival is early detection. To that end I cannot stress enough the importance of learning the early detection techniques. There are a multitude of sources out there from which you can gather this information. So learn the warning signs. Husbands, you need to learn the warning signs as well. One of the signs is a bloody discharge from the breast. Husbands may be the first to note that warning sign. Therefore, if you are a husband you should educate yourself in these matters. But the detection of that discharge is not a certain sign of cancer. Some cysts cause a similar discharge. Any such discharge is a certain sign that the woman should see a health care professional as soon as possible.
Also, if you detect a lump in your wife’s breast you should mention it to her and she should schedule an appointment with a doctor. Not all lumps indicate cancer. Some are benign cysts. My wife had a scare, years after her bout with breast cancer, when she discovered another lump and again there was a bloody discharge. The needle aspiration proved that in that case, it was a benign cyst. In my wife’s cancer case, there was an associated dramatic weight loss, but that may not always happen in all cases. However, if your wife begins to lose weight at an alarming rate it might be a good idea to speak to her about an appointment with the doctor.
Women should practice self exams on a monthly basis beginning at age 20. Women 20 – 39 should have a breast exam by a doctor every three years. Women 40 and older should have an exam yearly. They should also have a yearly mammogram.
The medical community is back and forth on when women should begin scheduling mammography. That timing has switched back and forth in recent years. The current thinking is age 40 to begin mammograms, unless your spouse is the premenopausal first-degree relative, (mother, sister, or daughter,) of a female who had breast cancer. In that case, they suggest beginning ten years earlier than the patient was diagnosed, but not younger than 25. So if your wife’s sister was diagnosed at age 40, then it is the current recommendation that she be checked by mammography at age 30. Here is a source for more information:
A few thoughts for husbands.
If your wife is diagnosed as having breast cancer then you have a tough job ahead. You’re going to need to step up to the plate and take as much pressure and stress off her as you can. That means doing the housework, and believe me it’s work.
It also means taking over the laundry, shopping, cooking, and if you have young children, you will have additional responsibilities. All those little things your wife handles on a daily basis suddenly become your responsibility. Don’t panic. If I could do it, so can you.
She’s going to want to talk to you at times concerning her fears and everything that’s going on in your lives. Let her be the one to bring up the subject and then let her lead the discussion. Most of the time, she is not looking to you for answers, she just needs a compassionate shoulder. At other times, she’ll need to avoid the topic as her mind tries to shut it out to gain a little peace. In my case, I learned to wait until my wife wanted to discuss what she was going through and feeling. That may have been the wrong approach, but I didn’t want to put any pressure on her, and it worked great with her. The truth is I’m not a doctor. The best thing you can do is consult with professionals in the health care community to get any medical advice.
You need to establish and keep open a good line of communication with your wife. If you see that something is bothering her but she doesn’t broach a subject, try letting her know you’re there and willing to listen when she’s ready to talk about it. Then, go do the dishes. If you’re like me, you probably need to do them again anyway. Believe me, you will get better at that too.
You are probably wondering about something that isn’t in the brochures and that is your love life. When should a man make romantic advances toward a woman, who is diagnosed and undergoing treatment, for the disease? This is quite possibly the simplest thing you will have to remember. The answer is when she is ready. Now, that might sound a bit flippant, but that wasn’t my intention. What I mean is that you should take your cues from your wife, first and foremost. She will let you know when she is physically well enough for you to make such advances. The doctor will probably make recommendations, but even then, you’ll need to make allowances for things such as tenderness to surgical regions. Your wife’s comfort and well-being should always come first, ahead of any feelings you might have. If you have questions about the medical aspects, ask the doctor, but always remember, your wife is the final judge on whether she is ready.
My wife refused to go to an established support group but I found an acquaintance at work to help. Her name was Judy and she was a breast cancer survivor. I didn’t know about Judy’s cancer until after my wife’s diagnosis. When Judy heard about Sue’s condition, she came to me and told me that she was a survivor, and that if I ever had any questions or needed someone to talk to, I was welcome to talk to her. A few days later I worked up the nerve to ask her a question I hadn’t asked anyone else. It’s a question that you’ll probably ask yourself at some point too. How should I treat my wife sexually?
Judy’s answer was, “Just the same as before her fight with the disease.” She went on to explain that I should use common sense. If my wife was healthy enough for a normal sex life, but I behaved in a withdrawn manner, then she’ll begin to think I’m no longer interested because of the surgical procedures. That behavior would hurt her emotionally. On the other hand, you don’t want to over compensate by going overboard either. You should try to restore your normal, pre-cancer love life, as much as possible.
Dealing with the fear. The most horrifying words a man can hear is, “Your wife has cancer.” You are in a situation that is going to be the most terrifying ordeal you will ever face. Remember that it is important for you to deal with your fears, but you must be rock steady for your wife. Her fears are going to be a lot greater than yours are. Be careful that you don’t add your fears to hers. That will just cause her more anxiety. Try to find a trusted family member or friend you can talk to about what you are feeling. However, don’t just put on a smiling face in front of your wife all the time, either. I mean, you don’t want her to think you don’t care.
One night while Sue was out of the house with her sisters I picked up the phone when my mother called. I was just sitting there in the house crying because I’d dealt with the fear alone until it had almost consumed me. My mother talked to me for a while that night and we discussed my fears for the first time. Nothing was resolved when the call ended, but suddenly I didn’t feel so all alone. Someone out there knew how I felt and allowed me to voice it. That helped me deal with my fear. That’s how support groups function. They can help you deal with a multitude of issues.
While you’re afraid of losing her, she is afraid of losing her life, and that is whole different level of fear. Remind her that the doctors have said that her odds were good since it was detected early. Fear does strange things to the mind. As I stated earlier, it can cause the patient to dump information almost as fast as they receive it. So be patient. You may need to reassure her several times before it sinks into her awareness.
Appearances. Your wife’s fears will not be on survival and recovery alone. After her surgeries have been completed and her wounds have healed, she will start to be concerned about her appearance and sexuality. She is going to start thinking that you will no longer love her because the disease has altered her body. I became aware of those feelings when my wife directly asked me how I could love her when her body was so changed. This is an area in which you must . . . and I do mean must, make sure you treat her exactly the way you treated her before the surgeries. It should go without saying that you should reassure her verbally as well. I made sure my wife knew by my actions and words that she was still desirable and sexy. My subsequent behavior gave her no room to doubt that I had spoken truthfully. Remember, the outside of her body might look different but it is still the same sweet lady you fell in love with.
About support groups. My wife refused to attend support group meetings because of my exclusion. I would have preferred that she had because I feel they could have helped her to deal with the emotional trauma. Try to encourage your wife to join, but as I stated before, do not pressure her. We did have a strong group of family and friends who helped us through much of the crisis. Remember, you do not have to face this alone. There are now support groups available for husbands of cancer survivors, which is great. I wish there had been one in the mid-nineties when we were experiencing it. I would have joined and I encourage you to join, if one is available. A support group with their wider range of experiences can help you avoid problems that you can’t possibly anticipate because they are out of your realm of experience. Some of those problems will involve helping your wife to recover more quickly from her ordeal. That alone is well worth your time. A support group will be men who are going through, (or have in the past gone through,) the same experiences as you are. You will all be able to reach out to each other, offer advice, and just be there when you need a friend.
In closing, I want you to know that although I’m not a doctor or health care professional of any sort, my door is always open to the husband of a woman going through the disease. My email address is attached below. Feel free to correspond with me when you need to talk about what’s happening in your life. I may be able to help and I will if I can.
Family members and friends who have helped get couples through this disease by acting as an unofficial support group, I salute you. God bless you all. You have no idea how very much you mean to us and help us get past the emergencies. I’m not sure how things would have turned out if our support system hadn’t helped as they did.
Sue on February 14th, 1998.
Ricky Sides was Born in Florence, Alabama, in May of 1958. The author’s writing experience includes the science fiction, action adventure book The Birth of the Peacekeepers and the other books in the series. The author also wrote the fantasy, action adventure Brimstone and the Companions of Althea series which is a nine novel set, based on the on-line game t4c (the fourth coming) and was written by Ricky Sides under the pen name Raistlin and edited and collaborated on by a wonderful lady from Louisiana under the pen name Kittie Justice. The author also wrote a book on women’s self-defense named The Ultimate in Women’s Self-Defense. Claws, a horror slash technothriller, set in Athens, Alabama, is his latest book.