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Husbands: How to help a wife through cancer treatment Tips for husbands helping wives through cancer treatment

Be patient and be there when your partner is facing this crisis.

October 12, 2009|Marc Silver

I don't know how many of you watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the HBO series that started its new season this fall. Larry David has split up with his wife and is living with a beautiful woman . . . who was just diagnosed with cancer.

The news causes his knees to buckle.

Then the doctor tells him to be prepared for mood swings, depression, vomiting and unsightly hair loss. "Your life will be mostly taking her to appointments," the doctor adds.

Larry asks if he'll be able to still play golf.

Larry David is not the first man to say the wrong thing after a wife or girlfriend is diagnosed with cancer. Nor will he be the last. When my wife told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the first words out of my mouth were: "Ew, that doesn't sound good."

I think she would have rather heard something like, "I love you very much, and we'll get through this together."

And deep inside, I was sort of thinking the same thing as Larry David: Will my life have any semblance of normalcy over the coming months? Will I have any time to do the things I like to do?

That's because human beings are a bit selfish. And, really, the reaction is pretty typical. As one psychologist later told me: It's not as if anyone is eager to jump into the role of caregiver for a loved one with cancer. Men may be at more of a disadvantage because the caregiver role is unfamiliar to us.

I had to learn by trial and error. I thought I'd be doing the right thing. I usually did the wrong thing. I remember wishing I had someone to tell me what not to say.

And so, as a public service to cancer husbands everywhere, I would like now to share 11 things you should never say to your wife or girlfriend after she is diagnosed with this disease. These are things that either a) I said and instantly regretted, or b) other guys told me that they said, or c) wives told me that their husbands said.


1. I thought you were healthy when I married you.

2. Is that the bad kind of cancer?

3. Do you want to stop and shop for a new car? (This was on the way home from the doctor's office where the diagnosis was presented.)

4. Cheer up: Your survival odds are 85%!

5. Isn't it kind of like a root canal?

6. You've got your mother and sisters -- you don't need me.

7. Can you delay your mastectomy until sailing season is over?

8. It's the bottom of the ninth, there are two out, but we're going to hit this ball out of the park. (Women tell me this is a really big no-no.)

9. What do I tell my friends?

10. I don't want to just make out with you -- guys like to finish what they start.

11. Why are you complaining about losing your hair? That wig looks better than your real hair!


Some of these comments may be signs of immaturity. Or stupidity. Or frustration because you can't fix the cancer. Or awkwardness because you just don't know what to say.

But all you really need to do is to hold her and tell her you'll be there for her. To let her tell you how cancer sucks (and all you have to say in reply is, "It sure does."). And to keep a little romance in the relationship. My wife tells me that the one thing she wished I did more during her months of treatment was to hold her head in my hands.

P.S.: You can play golf. Maybe not on the day of a biopsy or doctor's visit. But being a cancer caregiver does not mean giving up your entire life. You've got to recharge your batteries or you'll end up being a very cranky caregiver.

Cokie Roberts, journalist, author and breast cancer survivor, says friends would call her up when she was going through treatment and ask what they could do to help. And she'd tell 'em: Play tennis. With her husband.


Marc Silver is the author of "Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond." His marriage survived (and thrived) after his wife's 2001 cancer diagnosis.

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