Breast cancer may be a woman’s disease, but it also profoundly affects the lives of countless men. Just ask author John Anderson. His wife, sister, mother and mother’s best friend all were diagnosed with breast cancer, and his close encounters with this disease prompted him to write the book “Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men.” Here is an excerpt.
The abyssYou’re never ready when “it” happens.
“I have breast cancer.”
“They want to take my breasts.”
“I need chemo.”
“I have to get radiation.”
Your world has just gone black. She’s been diagnosed with breast cancer and you’ve just been dropped into a bottomless abyss.
. . .
Sharon had it all. She was a successful creative director at a boutique advertising agency located in the hip SoHo section of New York City. Her client list included Coca-Cola, Colgate, CBS, the New York Yankees, MTV Networks, and USA Today. She was happily married to her business partner, with a nice house in Westchester County, New York, which was constantly consumed by laughter from her two young boys, Seth and Isaac, ages 7 and 5.
She was very excited about her latest client conquest, Lifetime Television. Sharon had been put in charge of creating a breast cancer public service campaign for the cable TV network, designed to encourage women to get yearly checkups from their doctors, have mammograms, and do monthly self-exams. Sharon learned during the creative briefing that one in eight women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer every year. The statistic made her stop and think: Which of her friends would be the unlucky one?
At 41, Sharon had never had a mammogram. Women are encouraged to have their first breast screening by age 40, with some studies recommending as young as 35. Not to worry, Sharon thought. No one in my family has ever had breast cancer. Then she read that 85 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history of it — just like her. Sharon crammed in a mammogram appointment to be just before she picked up her oldest child from elementary school. The actual visit was painless (other than the way they squished her breasts onto the machine, which hurt — a lot, actually). So, another to-do item had been crossed off her busy list. The phone rang several days later. The mammogram center name and number popped up on Sharon’s caller ID: “We found an abnormality.”
Abnormalities, it turns out, aren’t that abnormal. Plenty of women are “diagnosed” every day with innocent, benign cysts in their breasts. That’s what the mammogram center told her, before they recommended a breast surgeon in New York City who could take a biopsy of her suspicious lump. The first biopsy procedure Sharon had — fine needle aspiration, or FNA, as the docs like to call it — is quite simple: numb the area around the concerned spot, insert a very small needle, extract some cells, and test the suspected cells to see if they are cancerous. The surgeon decided to go one step further and do a core biopsy, which is similar to the fine needle procedure but uses a larger needle. Her biopsy results came back several days later: both inconclusive.
So the surgeon ordered a surgical lumpectomy to completely remove what he believed to be just a benign cyst. A frozen section was taken while Sharon was under general anesthesia. Still, nothing
to worry about, she thought. While getting dressed after the procedure, the medical staff told Sharon that the surgeon needed to speak with her. It was then that Sharon first began to wonder — what if.
When she was called into her doctor’s office, the surgeon was on the phone, chatting away about an upcoming medical seminar that he was heading to in Ecuador, where he would teach one day and then spend the rest of his time on pristine golf courses framed by the Andes Mountains.
Sharon sat and listened as the surgeon bantered on about his golf short game. It made her relax. If he’s more concerned about his sand wedge than her lump, she thought, surely everything was fine — just as it always had been. But the longer the phone call lasted, the more annoyed Sharon got sitting there, waiting, alongside her husband. Sharon had to get back to work on that breast cancer campaign to help all those women who were fighting breast cancer. Mustering up her best glare face, the surgeon got the message and hung up the phone. He looked at Sharon, and only at Sharon. He didn’t acknowledge her husband at all.
Sharon is my wife.
. . .
Anne worked as an emergency room nurse. Everything and anything having to do with trauma came right to her in the ER: motorcycle accidents, newborn babies, heart attacks, strokes, brain aneurysms — the works. She loved the excitement and challenges she faced at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Sure, emergencies were stressful, but what a rush, she thought. To calm down after each shift, Anne lit up a cigarette, and on more eventful days, two or three during her ride home from the hospital.
One day, Anne got a call from her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, who needed medical help with her ailing husband, Jim. Upon entering the house, Anne heard a dreadful rattling sound, followed by an endless barrage of coughing and hacking. When Anne walked into Jim’s bedroom, she saw the tent — an oxygen tent — under which Jim’s terrified eyes met hers. He was suffocating, thanks to an incurable bout of emphysema.
Anne helped Jim clear his lungs of phlegm, then upped the oxygen level in the tent. Upon returning to her house, Anne went straight for her cigarette carton, tossed it in the trash can, and then sought out each of her three young boys — hugging each of them so tightly they could barely breathe. She swore never to smoke again. The next day, she quit her job at the ER and decided that her job for the rest of her life was to be a great mom.
Ten years later, Anne gave birth to her seventh child — a boy. There was no more room in her tiny three-bedroom, split-level house to fit her five other sons, one daughter, and husband, Bill. So Anne and Bill built a brand-new house just outside of town in one of those new developments where her kids could run wild and free in hundreds of wooded acres in back of their house. Even though Anne no longer worked at the hospital, she found a lot of reasons to visit the ER regularly. There was always a child dropping out of a tree, being cut by a knife, getting pushed down the stairs, blowing up firecrackers in his hands, melting plastic army men with gasoline, or falling off a bike when the speedometer hit 40 mph and the handlebars couldn’t hold the road any longer.
Anne loved her life despite the daily madness of raising seven children. After her husband landed a big promotion as plant manager for a large chemical company on the East Coast, she looked forward to their country club cocktails every weekend after a long week of child chaos. When her youngest trotted off to elementary school, Anne enjoyed the sudden quiet in her house. But it didn’t last long. The house was too quiet. So Anne signed up to be a nurse at a preschool nursery. One day, while holding her hands above her head to adjust her crisp white nursing cap, Anne felt a hot flash streak across her chest. Opening her blouse, she saw a huge red blotch splattered across her left breast. When she touched it, her face blanched. She felt a lump, and it was big.
Anne called her best friend to be by her side when she went in for surgery to remove the lump. Anne signed some forms, one of which said that if the surgeon found a malignant tumor, her breast would be removed. This was what doctors did back in 1978, before mammograms, sonograms, MRIs, or CAT and PET scans existed. As Anne was being sedated, she said a prayer. A devout Catholic, she prayed to St. John Neumann, an American saint credited for starting the first Catholic parochial schools in the United States. Then she stopped, in mid-prayer, and laughed because she was praying to a celibate priest to protect her bosom.
When Anne awoke in the recovery room after her operation, the first face she saw was her friend’s, spattered with tears. Her friend gently took Anne’s hand and placed it on Anne’s left breast. Anne felt nothing. Her breast was gone. Anne had breast cancer; her tumor was the size of a walnut. Anne’s survival prognosis was dismal. Her doctors gave her six months to live, tops.
Anne was my mom.
Mary loved to run through the woods. The best part about it was that she could get away from everything — and everyone — by running as fast as she could, up and down hills, through streams, around trees, over rocks, full out. She was one of the premier runners on an all-girl cross-country team in Wilmington, Delaware. The team was the best in the state, ever; for that matter, it was one of the best in the country, ever. Mary and her teammates won the state title every year, helping her school, Padua Academy, rack up eight straight girls’ cross-country state championships in a row. When it was time to graduate and go to college, Mary didn’t know what exactly she wanted to do (other than run, of course).
Mary attended the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where she first declared business as her major, followed by sociology, then physical education after that. College was fun — a lot of fun. Mary, like most college kids, wanted to enjoy every moment of campus life, which she did until the phone rang one day in her dorm room. It was Mary’s mom. Mary dropped the phone when she heard her mom say that her breast cancer was back again, for the third time. Mary was very close to her mom, and nothing — not even college — was more important. So Mary packed up her things, hugged her friends, and headed home to help her mom fight for her life.
Mary dutifully went to all her mom’s chemo sessions, and she drove her mom to Philadelphia three times a week where they prayed together in front of a saint’s shrine, while also doing the laundry, cooking the meals, and packing lunches for her dad and younger siblings. Mary was going to do whatever it took to keep her mom alive; unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Mary held her mom’s hand when she died in a hospital bed on a cold March morning.
All of Mary’s cross-country teammates came to the funeral. It was standing room only. Ten priests led the service that day. The scale of the ceremony felt like the church was burying a bishop. Mary was fine throughout the whole service, until they played her mom’s favorite hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.” “And He will raise you, up on eagle’s wings.” That’s it, Mary thought. It was a direct calling, from her mom to her, to become a nurse, just like her mom had been.
Mary changed schools and graduated two years later with a nursing degree. She went into home care nursing so that she could provide a more personal touch to sick people’s needs. When she met her future husband, Joe, she decided to move to Minnesota where he worked for Mayo Clinic. There was just one big problem with Mayo for Mary — its location. Minnesota was just too cold. So Mary convinced her husband, a Minnesota native, to transfer to another Mayo Clinic site in sunny Scottsdale, Arizona, where they moved their growing family of two boys, with a third boy on the way.
Mary had been getting annual mammograms before any of her girlfriends even knew what the word meant. Mary had been checked and prodded so many times by doctors looking for cancer inside her that she thought maybe God had finally answered her prayers that cancer would not be part of her personal life, ever again. Then one day her doctor walked into the examination room with a blank stare on his face. “I have cancer, don’t I?” she said to her doctor. The doctor didn’t respond. He didn’t have to. She knew.
Mary is my sister.
. . .
Caryl was always the first in her family to do everything. She was the first to be born, the first to attend college, the first to graduate college, the first to get married, and the first to have a child. She was also the first of her friends to hear about the awful tragedy that happened on a foggy night in Huntington, West Virginia, in November 1970, when a chartered plane crashed, killing the entire Marshall University football team — 75 in all. Caryl was attending Marshall then, and had friends on that flight who were now dead. Classes were cancelled that day, and Caryl went to the memorial service held at the school stadium.
Life for Caryl after that crash changed forever; it was just too darn short. So Caryl got busy. She graduated early, got married, got pregnant, and had a daughter. Caryl moved to rural Pennsylvania to slow life down by growing her own garden and giving birth to two more daughters. Caryl loved being in the country, away from everything. She learned how to can peaches and make strawberry and blackberry jam. Her husband, Jerry, was a hunter, so she bought a deep freeze where she kept the deer meat that he bagged during hunting season. There was plenty to do around her old farmhouse — paint a room, fix a leaky faucet, patch a hole in the wall. Country living was just great — until an emergency happens.
Early one morning, Caryl awoke in a panic: she couldn’t breathe. Her husband had already left for work. Desperate, Caryl knocked over a glass, which woke up her oldest daughter Christie, who came to her aid. Caryl was rushed to the hospital. The doctors were perplexed about what caused Caryl to stop breathing. They never did find out. But during the battery of tests, the doctors found a lump in her breast. The first person she called for help was Anne.
Caryl was my mom’s best friend.
Twenty years later, and several cancer recurrences after, Caryl traveled to New York City to appear in a TV breast cancer campaign for Lifetime Television called “Stop Breast Cancer for Life,” standing alongside my wife, Sharon, who was still undergoing chemotherapy. I directed the spots. Caryl and Sharon are still here today. So is my sister Mary. My mom unfortunately didn’t make it; after ten years of battle, she died on March 14, 1988.
. . .
When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Sharon’s first thought wasn’t about death, her career, or even her own children. It was about me, her husband, sitting next to her with a face frozen in sheer panic. She reached over, grabbed my hand, squeezed hard, and looked into my eyes. The first words out of her mouth, after the doctor had told her she had breast cancer, were to me: “I am so sorry.”
She was sorry for getting cancer! She was sorry because my mom had fought breast cancer for ten years before dying from it. So Sharon wanted to make sure that I was going to be okay before she thought anything about herself. This was followed by a much stronger, and scarier feeling: would I still find her attractive? A wife’s worst fear is that her husband is going to leave her, unable to deal with what one woman refers to as “damaged goods.”
Nobody knows how many men leave a marriage after their wives have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What is known is that every patient reception area in the country has at least two or more juicy “bad husband leaving” stories circulating in it at any given time. Does a breast cancer diagnosis make men go bad? No. What it does do is exaggerate everything that’s already been happening in a marriage — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If you are a husband, the time has arrived for you to be on your best behavior since you walked down that aisle with her. What your wife wants from you most is for you to show up and be there for her. That’s going to mean accompanying her to her appointments, helping her make her medical decisions (if she wants you to do that with her), comforting her, and the biggest thing of all — listening to her. After a diagnosis, the husband becomes the principal caregiver in the relationship. This role reversal is perhaps the greatest challenge placed on a marriage by breast cancer, and if you are her husband, it’s up to you to be ready for that challenge.
“Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men” by John W. Anderson, © 2010 John W. Anderson. All rights reserved. For more information, visit the .