Harder on the Patient or the Spouse?

Screen Shot 2014 10 03 at 9.49.37 AM 194x300 Harder on the Patient or the Spouse? Photoby Marc Silver

When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was hard on her. And it was hard on me. So who had it worse? That may seem an absurd question, yet I’ve heard more than a few breast cancer survivors proclaim, “It’s harder on my husband than it is on me.” Let me give you my perspective.

In 2001, my wife was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer—a lump in each breast. I tried to be the best caregiver I could be. Being a typical guy, I screwed up. I played the denial game. I tried to cheer her up relentlessly. Eventually, I got the hang of how to help (in a nutshell: don’t try to fix things, just shut up and listen).

I certainly endured a lot of emotional pain. I remember the nights right after the diagnosis when I’d fall into a heavy sleep and never want to wake up, because waking up meant it was time to jump back into our war on cancer. We were busy fighting our HMO for referrals to “out of network” breast cancer specialists. We ran from one doctor’s office to another. As days turned into weeks, I often found myself sitting in a waiting room while my wife was undergoing assorted surgeries. I’d watch The Price Is Right on the TV mounted high on the wall and wait and wonder what was going to go wrong (or right). And wish it were all as easy as guessing the cost of a new tube of toothpaste.

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I felt as if I were balancing a plate on one upstretched arm. Upon that plate was piled: Marsha’s breast cancer diagnosis; a report of suspicious cells that appeared to be a lymphoma, which caused the surgeon to say, “Boy, you guys just can’t catch a break”; a big heaping of fear of the unknown; and a practical side dish of worry about whether we could make it financially if Marsha had to take a medical leave from her teaching job. On top of that, there were the usual pressures from my job and the daunting task of raising two teenage daughters.

I was petrified that I was going to drop the plate. I thought I was going to melt down in a weeping heap, unable to function. Who could I confide in? If I exposed my panic to Marsha, surely I’d be burdening her at a time when she had enough to deal with.

But I didn’t drop the plate. As time went by, I learned that my arm—and spirit—were stronger than I’d thought. I also realized that selfishness is key in coping. A cancer caregiver isn’t on call twenty-four hours a day. I made time for things I like to do and those precious moments helped me cope. With my wife’s permission, I went for long jogs and longer bike rides; I lay on the floor in yoga classes and followed a yogi’s commands; I spent hours in front of the TV watching silly DVDs. Even work could be a balm. When Marsha was going through chemo, weekends were hellish: She was upstairs in bed, feeling crappy; I was juggling the jobs of caregiver, errand-runner, and dad. When I’d get to work on Monday, I’d settle into my office with a sigh of relief. For the next eight hours, I’d know what I was doing and I even got an hour off for lunch.

In short, I could escape. And that eased the crush of cancer.

But what about the toll on Marsha? While I was watching TV in the waiting room, she had two surgical biopsies, then had a cancerous tumor sliced out of each breast. A drain stuck in her armpit caused excruciating pain. She endured countless pokes and pricks. Six chemotherapy sessions caused her hair to fall out and made her feel as if she’d just stepped off the world’s craziest roller coaster (and she is a woman who cannot even tolerate a merry-go-round). A port was implanted in her chest to ease the delivery of chemo drugs but it caused a blood clot that made it hard for her to breathe and made her face all puffy from fluid retention. She could barely walk down the hall at the school where she teaches without getting winded.

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Yet during her five months of chemo, she dragged herself to work just about every day, even though she was often wobbly and weary. Work distracted her, she later told me. At home, she’d just worry about the cancer: Did the surgeon get it all? Would chemo and radiation work their magic?

And, what if they didn’t?

Marsha had to face her own mortality, which is a heck of a lot more daunting than what I had to face: the unspoken “what if” that hovers when a loved one has cancer.

Unlike me, Marsha never really could escape all of these worries, because her body always reminded her of what she was going through.

I could sympathize with her traumas. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine the courage it takes to submit to the seemingly endless (and endlessly painful) treatments. I’m not sure I would have been as brave as Marsha. During her chemo months, I had a dream in which I had to have a chemotherapy infusion. I was a total chicken. I wouldn’t let them stick that needle in my veins. I awoke in a cold sweat. But it was just a dream.

So, was it harder on me than Marsha? I think not.

She makes no bones about it: She believes her cancer was hard on me but harder on her, then and now. Even seven years after her diagnosis, she carries all sorts of scars, dents in each breast, fingernails that break more easily, and the notorious chemo brain. She’s sure she’s got it: a diminished ability to juggle many tasks and details.

I once trudged on a thirty-mile cancer walkathon, partly to get an inkling of Marsha’s cancer ordeal. Afterward, nursing my blisters, I asked her if I could ever really understand what she went through. She smiled the wary smile of those who have endured a lot and simply said, “There’s just no way.”