Around 5,000 Malaysian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, most of them aged between 30 and 60 years, and nearly half of those affected are under 50-years of age.
Although the magnitude of women affected is alarming, equally significant are the ramifications of the illness for the spouse. Breast cancer is a couple’s illness, not a disease of the wife’s breast.
Distress (anxiety, depressed mood, physical symptoms) in spouses of women with early stage breast cancer has been demonstrated in studies showing significantly elevated levels of distress of up to 3 years post-diagnosis and in some studies spousal distress exceeds that of the diagnosed woman.
There is substantial evidence that the breast cancer is not only the wife’s medical diagnosis, but the spouse’s illness as well. Every aspect of a spouse’s temporal and cosmological life will be affected, including how unprepared he feels about the diagnosis, the rapidity of changes that happens to him and to them as a couple, how he spends his day, how he struggles to make things work, how he takes on increasing amounts, as well as the quality of their time together as a couple. Even when some spouses are able to identify positive benefits from their experience with the illness, spouses are overwhelmed, devastated, and unprepared to handle what is happening to themselves, to their wife, and to their relationship as a couple.
For the most part, spouses seem to deal with their emotional response to their wife’s breast cancer on their own, including shutting down their own feelings and emotions. Some keep their feelings to themselves when little support was offered to them by others. Some keep feelings to themselves because they do not want to burden their wives. Even their wives do not always want their spouses to talk about the cancer or to talk about the cancer with others.
To further add to the pressure of helping their wives manage the wives’ negative thinking, some men believe that to the extent their wife experienced positive or negative thoughts, it affects the outcome of her illness and eventual survival.
Spouses work at ways they could take some control of the impact of the breast cancer on their own lives. In addition to assuming more of the work load in managing the couple’s daily life at home, spouses describe creating a systematic way to help their wife make decisions about treatment and care.
Faced with a problem they can’t solve, men are often also thrust into a more domestic role that provides added challenges. Accustomed to their role of breadwinner, they must now step out of that box and take on child rearing, domestic responsibilities, household chores, and the care of elderly parents, all of which can be overwhelming. The additional workload and responsibilities can take their toll, not only on the individual but on the entire family.
The already-difficult situation can be intensified when men won’t reach out for support or professional help during this time. Men generally believe they are strong and that they have to be all that they can be for everyone around them, but this tendency can be unhealthy for men who then cope with the situation by withdrawing socially, overindulging in food and alcohol, or living in a state of denial.
The good news is that there are some simple strategies men can use to not only cope with a loved one’s illness but also manage their added responsibilities during this time.
For instance, men should get professional support when needed. Friends, family, and colleagues will serve as a vital support network during your spouse’s illness, but sometimes it’s not enough to turn to a buddy for help. It’s good to know that counselling is for everyone and that it can serve as a valuable coping mechanism during seemingly unbearable situations.
Dato Dr. Ibrahim, Beacon Hospital Malaysia