What Does It Mean to Be a Caregiver?

By on July 18th, 2010 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

The other day, I came across a poll that said many cancer caregivers don’t think of themselves as caregivers. I sure didn’t when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The word caregiver sounds clinical and detached. It makes me think of a white-clad attendant, offering tea and pills to a bedbound patient. That surely wasn’t me. And my wife was far from helpless. In fact, as I came to see, she was in charge of her treatment, selecting a team of doctors and settling on a treatment plan.

So what was I? I was my wife’s strategic adviser at doctor’s appointments, taking notes and reminding her of questions she wanted to ask (but never asking for her). I was her lover, reassuring her that even with a bald head, she was beautiful (and she was!). I was her supply sergeant, dashing out to find ginger candies she craved on a cold winter’s night. I was her confidant, listening to her honest emotions and fighting the urge to say, “Cheer up honey!” when all she wanted to do was talk about how much cancer sucks.

There were many times I didn’t know what to do. I kept wishing for a book that would have helped me understand how complicated it is to deal with a partner’s cancer. I couldn’t find one, so I wrote one myself: Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. I talked to many doctors, mental health experts, and breast cancer couples. From talking to doctors, therapists, and couples for the book, I learned that it is indeed complicated to care for a loved one who has cancer, that we clueless husbands are bound to get some things wrong. And we are all caregivers in the truest sense of the word. We are giving care, in the form of love and support at a time when they are desperately needed. I also learned that despite the complications of cancer, despite the fact that couples work things out in their own individual way, there is one piece of advice, shared with me by many women, that always seems to work. Attention male givers of care: Fight your “Mr. Fix It” instincts and just “shut up and listen” to your wife.


Marc Silver: journalist, author and husband of a breast cancer survivor — Marc is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. When Marc's wife, Marsha, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, he realized there were no resources to help men help the women in their lives get through breast cancer. Even though many publishers told him "men don't buy self-help books," Marc was sure this was one book that guys would buy — and if they didn't, their wives would buy it for them. He lives in Chevy Chase, MD, with Marsha and their two teenage daughters, and is a great believer in the breast cancer husband's motto: "Shut up and listen."


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