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Marc Silver on Breast Cancer

Marc Silver on Breast Cancer

When Marc Silver's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, he was far from a perfect caregiver. In fact, he wished he had a book to help him face the challenges ahead. Drawing upon his skills as a consumer journalist at U.S. News & World Report, he wrote Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. Silver is now an editor at National Geographic as well as a national lecturer, speaking frequently on the topic of clueless breast cancer husbands. Here, he shares some of his experiences.

What was it like for you and your wife during those first few weeks after the breast cancer diagnosis?

It was insane. I think that in some ways that first month is the hardest, because usually the diagnosis drops out of the sky. It's not like you've had these mysterious symptoms. In Marsha's case, she went in for a follow-up and she'd had a lot of them before, so she wasn't worried. And then all of a sudden you're in crisis mode, where you've got to find out what the diagnosis is and who your doctor's going to be all in a matter of weeks.

Is it important for partners to go to doctor appointments?

Marsha would give me a pass. She'd say, "Oh, you don't have to come to this doctor's appointment." But I just knew that I had to come. Sometimes the tendency of the patient is to say, "I can handle it," but maybe she really does need you.

Being there for her physically is so important when she's going to all these doctors' appointments, to take notes for her and to hold her hand and to bring a tape recorder. If you're not there, you're not on the team. She's going to go to the doctor and then tell you what he said, and that's not the same as being there and seeing the reaction on her face.

What was it like for you being a breast cancer husband?

I remember one Sunday I was out driving, doing errands, and it was also right after 9-11, so it was just a really weird time, and Ray Charles came on singing America the Beautiful, of all things. And all of the sudden, I heard these weird noises, and it was me sobbing aloud. I just thought, I'm really going crazy. And I didn't tell anyone because I thought, oh my God, I'm just losing it.

Do most husbands experience something like this?

When I was writing, many men told me that they cried in the car. It's this place of release. It's very therapeutic to let it all out. One guy told me he used to cry every time Barry Manilow sang Can't Smile Without You, and he hated Barry Manilow. I wish I had known when I was crying that other men go through this. You're not going crazy if you're crying in the car.

Was breast cancer difficult on your marriage?

Nothing can tell you how it will affect your marriage. It puts a lot of stress on every marriage. I talked to some couples who thought their marriage was fine, and when the breast cancer came along, the marriage just went to pieces. I talked to other couples where they were having trouble in their marriage, and somehow the husband found new strength after this diagnosis, and then the husband and wife grew closer together. It's like everything that came before didn't matter, because it is a real test of a relationship. If you're lucky, you can grow closer together, because it really is like going into battle together.

How did you manage to find humor in daily life?

The day that the humor returned, we went to a wig salon. There are all these boxes of wigs around us, and they were amazing wigs. So I asked Marsha if she would mind trying a few of them on for me. These were like Dolly Parton wigs, and things like that. And we just laughed so hard. It was all this pent-up anxiety and fear. We were in this crazy moment, sitting in a wig store, laughing like hyenas, and I'm sure everyone must have thought we were out of our minds, because it wasn't a place that catered to cancer patients. And it was great. After that, we tried to have some fun whenever we could.

How can men help women get through this?

A lot of guys want to run in and fix things. "Shut up and listen" is the Breast Cancer Husband's motto. I used to feel like a failure when my wife was depressed. I'd feel like, I've got to cheer her up and if I can't, I'm not being a good husband. Well, I had to learn that it's okay for her to have these feelings, and it's better to just be there to listen.

I know that there are some women who don't want help and want to do it all alone, and the husband thinks she's doing great and she doesn't need help. But it's important to ask what she wants. It's not like you have to run a marathon. You just have to be there for her and spend time with her.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

Just suck it up and move on.

The best thing about change is...

...It makes you appreciate stability.

What’s the best change you have ever made?

Getting married to a woman I love, who has brought out the best in me (and is still trying to stamp out the worst in me.)

For more information on Marc Silver, visit www.breastcancerhusband.com.

Posted: 9/10/08