Telling Your Husband You Have Breast Cancer

How do you break the news to your husband as you’re dealing with your own emotions?

Telling your loved ones of your recent diagnosis of cancer is difficult. Having been in this scenario quite recently, I can tell you from the inside out—it is a challenge. First, you’re dealing with your own emotions about the diagnosis. Second, it’s hard not to try and take care of and feel responsible for your spouse’s reaction.

It might sound odd to you that fear is not always part of the equation upon receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer. You might assume that being scared is simply a given. But although it’s a common one and often comprises a piece of the response, there are actually just as many different reactions as there are women. For instance, I was not ever worried about the cancer. The diagnosis was quite surprising, because I’m fairly young for a second cancer diagnosis in two years. It was logistically difficult, as I had to work around speaking engagements for surgery and follow up treatments. (Yes, intellectually I knew I was very lucky to even have treatment available, but emotions have nothing to do with intellect!) But there was never fear. My cancer was caught early, which I’m sure also made a big difference.

Telling my husband Joe, however, was a totally different experience. Had I known he would react in such a way I would have sought out additional couples advice. He was instantly submerged in fear and sadness, crying at the restaurant over our Japanese dinner where I broke the news after the radiologist called. I continued to eat without a problem, but tried to no avail to calm and reassure him. I had to use all my therapist skills to stay grounded and not let his reaction spill over onto me. I wasn’t in denial, just in matter-of-fact mode.

Some women will first find themselves busily taking care of medical stuff like appointments, setting the surgery date, gathering research and so on.  That task-oriented, doing mode is productive in a practical way and can also serve as a way of delaying the emotions that are stirring underneath. If that’s the case, the emotions will surface eventually and you want them to. Continuing to bury them won’t help you process and get through them. Although there was nothing upsetting beneath the surface in my case that needed to bubble up, I felt ready to accept whatever feeling floated in and very receptive to getting help if and when I needed it. Before I began radiation, I did experience some anger and some worry about burning. I spoke with my mentors and received the support I required to get through that part of the treatment.

At one of my first appointments I was handed a humongous folder full of breast cancer information. I noticed that some of it was for Joe. A support group for husbands was offered at the hospital on a weekly basis. He never went, but I think it helped him knowing the group was there.

We did hug a lot, but it became clear that often the hugs were more for him than they were for me. Your husband might need reassurance, but when you’re going through a life experience like this, you need the hugs from your husband, and he should get his hugs from family and friends. After almost two weeks of attempting to help Joe with his intense worries, I told him compassionately that he needed to rely on his friends, community resources and family for support. My energy had to be laser-focused on handling my situation, both emotionally and physically.

Ladies, if you ever find yourself in a situation such as this, remember:

1. You are only responsible for taking care of your own reaction and to get all the support you require — both personal and professional.

2. You are not responsible for your husband’s reaction, and you shouldn’t try to take care of his emotions. Lovingly suggest other resources to him and then let it go.

3. You love him and don’t want him to suffer because this is happening to you. That’s a common female reaction. What happened to you isn’t your fault, and although it’s affecting your husband, you need to concentrate on yourself. This is a good time for you to practice pulling back and receiving as opposed to giving.

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski

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