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Sharp Health News

How to support a woman with breast cancer

Aug. 18, 2015

When Breast Cancer Strikes the Woman You Love

Receiving the news that the woman you love has breast cancer can be devastating. It is a diagnosis that affects not only the patient, but also those who love and support her, including her husband, partner, father, brothers and sons.

"As a pathologist who examines and analyzes tissue to make diagnoses, I'm very familiar with breast cancer," says Dr. Omid Bakhtar, a physician affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center and Sharp Memorial Hospital.

"Still, nothing prepared me for my wife's diagnosis during the eighth month of her pregnancy."

When it comes to breast cancer, many women find themselves grappling with distressing situations, such as the need for surgery on one or both breasts, decisions about breast reconstruction, loss of hair and exhausting courses of treatment.

These are intensely personal and emotional circumstances in which men, when equipped with knowledge, a plan and a support system, can make a tremendous difference during a woman's journey toward recovery.

Not just a "woman's issue"

"One of the most important things a man who is facing a loved one's breast cancer diagnosis can do is understand the process," explains Dr. Bakhtar. "Breast cancer is not just a diagnosis, treatment or recovery, but a series of these events and others."

While your first instinct may be to "fix" the problem at hand, men will serve their loved one better by acknowledging fears, confusion and even anger about the diagnosis, and openly communicating with her about how she feels and what she needs.

Some men benefit from support groups or talking to friends, while others prefer to do their own exhaustive research or get information directly from their loved one's doctor.

It can be easy to miss something important a doctor has said or forget an important note or task, especially when under the stress of cancer. It's vital for a man to be an active participant in the process.

There are several ways to stay on top of a loved one's treatment while also showing meaningful signs of support:
  • Attend doctor appointments — ask questions and take notes
  • Communicate — allow her to talk about her pain, fears and needs without trying to solve each concern; simply listen and offer support
  • Circle the wagons — reach out to others and keep them informed of both set-backs and progress in the loved one's condition
  • Ask for help — friends and family can help care for a loved one, stand in when you cannot be there, give you a shoulder to lean (or cry) on, and share in some of the milestones and celebrations along the way — from a head-shaving party to the last chemo appointment
  • Find ways to relieve the stress — get outside, meet a friend, take time to do something together that is fun and unrelated to cancer
  • Be honest about what you need to provide support — be it time alone, sleep, exercise, an excursion with friends or something else

"Remember that self-care is a key component of caring for someone with breast cancer," says Dr. Bahktar. "Cancer is not only a 'woman's issue'. Oftentimes, when the experience is shared, a man and woman come out on the other side with a stronger and more meaningful relationship."

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