Sofia Perez will never forget her husband’s reaction two years ago to the news that she had stage 2 breast cancer.
“Although he could sense something wasn’t right as soon as we sat down in our living room, he didn’t ask any questions until after I told him what was going on,” she says.
His reaction after that brought tears to her eyes.
“He held me tightly while reassuring me that everything would be okay and that we would make it through this together no matter what happened next or how difficult things might become along the way,” says Perez, now 42.
Her husband’s response was exactly right, notes Jennifer Gregg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Bay Area and an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University in California.
“Listening and expressing support is what a partner needs to do when a breast cancer diagnosis is first shared,” Dr. Gregg says.
Perez was wise, too, in being direct and explaining the situation soon after she was diagnosed without getting too deep in the weeds about her treatment or prognosis, Gregg adds.
Breaking the news that you’ve got cancer can feel overwhelming, which is why Gregg recommends that you first think about your feelings, “so you walk into the discussion with an awareness of them.”
Expressing what you need is also helpful, she adds. “Do you want the person to check in with you about the process, or wait for you to bring it up? Or do you want an ear to talk to, or somebody to help you cope by helping you see the bright side?” Either way, it’s best to think about your own intentions and what you want.
“It’s important to note that, at first, men may need fewer specifics on things like surgery options or staging,” she says. “They may need more information, instead, about how you’re feeling, what your worries are, and what they need to do to support you.”
Then, once your partner begins asking for details, like whether you’ll need chemotherapy or radiation, or if you’re going to lose your breast, it’s always ideal to be direct in your answer.
“Saying something like, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet’ is one way to go about this,” Gregg says. “You can also add, ‘This might be hard for you, sweetie. I want to make sure that if I end up needing a mastectomy that you get support about this,’ which gives your partner permission to request their own support.”
You also want to do your best to keep all the lines of communication open even when you don’t have all the answers.
“Lots of times partners feel like they can’t ask questions or they shouldn’t react in any way that might make them seem less sympathetic,” Gregg says. “We find that men are worried about coming off as a jerk, so they don’t express their concerns or struggles, and that’s not great, either.”
How to Talk About Hereditary Risk
Since a breast cancer diagnosis may have implications for male family members, it’s also important to discuss hereditary risk, according to Mary Dev, LCSW, a senior social work counselor at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This is especially critical if you’ve had genetic testing that revealed you’re a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene carrier.
“Once you know what your genetic situation is, be honest with your family, including the men in your family,” Dev says. “While many families and cultures don’t talk about this, you don’t want your family members to be blindsided by something that has been in your family tree all along.”
Again, keep the explanation simple. “Say something like ‘This is my situation,’” she says. “‘It’s now part of our family history, so we need to see if anyone else in the family is at risk. This will help us make other decisions if needed.’”
How to Ask for Help
When it comes to asking for help from the men in your family, don’t expect anyone to read your mind and know exactly what you need.
“Most people want to help out,” Dev says. “They may just need direction; so, if your husband isn’t a good cook, maybe he can find a way to outsource this among friends and neighbors.”
Throughout the process, touch base with the men in your life frequently, Dev recommends. For example, if you want them to come to your doctor’s appointments and treatments, make that clear.
“When couples don’t talk that’s a red flag,” Dev notes. “You want to be sure to continue talking about your concerns, which will keep changing throughout your breast cancer experience.”
This includes being honest with your partner about how your breast cancer is affecting your relationship.
“Be honest if you fear it will affect your sex life, and don’t assume that it will be a turnoff for your partner,” Dev says. “The more you communicate, the more information you’re giving your partner to support you.”
Or, just follow Perez’s husband’s lead.
“He showed immense strength during such a vulnerable time by being there for me without fail,” says Perez, who finished treatment two months ago and is now in remission. “From helping me make appointments for doctor’s visits, providing comfort where needed or simply listening, his support meant more than anything else in those moments of uncertainty and fear following my diagnosis.”