Breast Cancer Diagnosis Jolts Husbands into challenging new role
News – Jackson Newspapers – Ripley, WV
By Dina Gerdeman
Wednesday Oct 28, 2009 at 12:01 AM Oct 28, 2009 at 12:24 PM
Breast Cancer Diagnosis Jolts Husbands: When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, the men in their lives are deeply affected as well and often experience a wide range of emotions.
Jay Morris stood by his wife, helping her through her battle with breast cancer every step of the way. Without minimizing how tough it was for her, he said the journey was at times horrendous for him as well.
Jay and Kristina Morris were engaged in 2002 when Kristina got the awful news that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. Kristina wondered if Jay may want to part ways, but Jay wouldn’t think of letting her go.
The Whitman couple decided to get married earlier than originally planned. Shortly afterward, Kristina went through a mastectomy and grueling chemotherapy treatments, with her husband helping her through it all. Jay Morris said the experience took a lot out of him.
“It was by far the worst thing I ever went through. I wasn’t the one who had cancer,” Jay Morris, 39, said.
“I would watch them put poison in her body to kill the cancer cells. And, I would physically watch the life get sucked out of her. She would turn pale, and by the time she left there, she was unable to walk. Then she’d be in bed for a week, vomiting, dealing with thrush, these terrible blisters in her mouth. There were multiple trips to the hospital. You feel so helpless watching someone you love battling this God-forsaken thing.”
The Husband Experience
Many husbands experience fear and worry for the future, anger about why the couple is dealing with cancer. Also, a sense of helplessness in not being able to single-handedly control or fix the illness. And, all of that is often mixed with the feeling that they need to be constantly positive and supportive for their ailing wives.
What can make it even harder for men is that they may keep their emotions to themselves, shrugging off counseling or even feeling reluctant to have a heart-to-heart with a close friend.
“Men are less likely to seek (emotional) support than women,” said Patricia Kartiganer, a licensed clinical social worker at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center who counsels patients, couples and other family members dealing with breast cancer. “It’s harder for men to let their hair down and talk to somebody about how they’re feeling. That’s not what they’re socialized to do. Women are more used to sharing in that way.”
Men often feel they have to be the strong ones, so they keep their chins up. Wives sometimes misinterpret that tough exterior, Kartiganer said.
“The husbands may not be crying about this, and I’ll have women say to me, ‘I’m worried about him because he doesn’t get it. This cancer could do me in, and he’s not prepared.’ But all he’s trying to do is be the strong guy,” she said.
When Kartiganer meets with couples, she helps them get out of the practice of protecting each other and instead work on getting real with how they feel.
“The patient is protecting the husband and the husband is protecting the patient, and they’re both protecting the children,” she said. “But they need to communicate.”
Couples dealing with breast cancer often struggle with intimacy issues, Kartiganer said.
“Women who have undergone a lumpectomy or masectomy or hair loss aren’t feeling very sexy,” she said. “And men who have their own needs for attention and intimacy can feel guilty about their own needs. Intimacy can be put on the back burner temporarily. I talk to couples about other ways of being intimate, like holding hands and having designated couple time.”
It can be an emotionally charged and difficult time for a marriage, but many couples come through it stronger, Kartiganer said.
“This can be a real challenge for a marriage,” she said. “If a marriage is good to begin with, it usually stays good and can often get even better. If there are problems in the marriage, the couple might see a short-term gain (after diagnosis). But then things go back to the way they were but worse because this ends up being an added stressor.”
Life After Cancer
After Kristina Morris was told she was cancer-free, the couple went on to adopt a son. Kristina later gave birth to two daughters, and shortly after their third child was born, Kristina was diagnosed with breast cancer again in 2008. This time, Jay Morris was floored.
“I was beyond devastated,” said Morris, whose children are 6, 2 and 1. “Also, I couldn’t talk to anyone about it without breaking down. I was thinking selfishly because, at this point, it’s a whole different world when there’s three kids involved. I was a disaster and she was tough, hugging me and saying we’ll get through this again. And, I would go to work and start thinking, ‘What would I do for day care?’ I would have to pull over and force myself to redirect my thoughts because I was about to go insane. I worked myself up into a state.”
Jay Morris did discuss his deepest fears with friends, but not his wife. If Kristina started a “what if” conversation about the worst-case scenario, he would change the subject.
“I didn’t want to talk to her about that,” he said. “She had enough on her plate. I don’t want to dwell on that with her.”
A Husband’s Way
He found perhaps the best way of helping both of them was by making light of a dark situation, cracking jokes that he hoped would put a smile on his wife’s face at a time when all she could see was fear.
“How many times can you say, ‘Listen, it’s going to be OK’? And besides, it’s hard to say that because you don’t know if that’s true,” he said.
When Kristina was dealing with options for reconstructing her breast, Jay said he could care less if a nipple was included. He joked that they could “save a lot of money if they just put a pepperoni on there.” He would jokingly tell her, “Don’t get too close to me. I don’t want to catch your cancer.” And when she called him after finding out she had congestive heart failure on top of everything else – possibly as a side effect of cancer treatments – Jay came out with, “The only side effect you haven’t had is an erection lasting longer than four hours.”
“All you can do is laugh about it because otherwise you’d be on top of the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “It helped to still be us through this. This cancer didn’t have to take us.”
Indeed, Kristina said Jay’s medicine has worked well for her. She said her husband always seems to know what she needs. “If I want to sob, he will console me. Or he’ll see the look in my eyes and pat my hand. But then five minutes later, he’s saying something really stupid to make me laugh,” said Kristina, 36, whose examinations show no evidence of cancer in her body today. “He doesn’t talk about his fears with me. Sometimes I wish he would, but that might make me more fearful, and I think he knows I’m fearful enough for the both of us. We’ve been through hell and back, but we’ve done it side by side. There’s no way I would have survived without him.”
A Reporter’s Story
When Kelley Tuthill, a Hingham native and reporter for WCVB-Channel 5, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was afraid her husband Brendan Ward might “freak out.” Instead, Ward felt incredibly calm and confident that his strong wife would beat the disease and that they could get through it together.
“I don’t know where that came from,” said Ward, 38, who lives in Wellesley with Tuthill and their two daughters, ages 5 and 3. “It just felt like this big challenge that we had to rise up and meet.”
The couple got the news on Dec. 22, 2006, and for a few days kept it to themselves.
“My husband and I spent the weekend before Christmas crying, hugging and being scared together. It was just us,” Tuthill, 39, said. “We didn’t tell anyone else because we didn’t want to ruin Christmas.”
Tuthill, whose examinations now show no evidence of cancer, is grateful for the way her husband “kept it all together” and also agreed to open their lives so she could share her journey on television. Yet Ward acknowledged that the year and a half of treatment certainly wasn’t easy. There were so many doctors to deal with, and the health care system could be challenging, he said, but he felt it was important to keep his own frustration in check.
“You have multiple doctors and multiple treatment plans. It can be very complex and confusing. But you can’t fly off the handle at the doctors,” he said. “You have to be patient. You can’t be the problem. Also, You have to be an advocate for your wife, make sure she’s being taken care of and ask questions about things that seem confusing.”
At times he felt for the sake of both of them that it was best to “tag out” and let another family member, like Tuthill’s mother, help make decisions. For instance, he didn’t feel he needed to get in on decisions about his wife’s breast reconstruction, which can be a sensitive subject for many women who may worry how their husbands will feel after they have had a mastectomy.
“When it comes to breast reconstruction, there are a myriad of options and things to consider and it all comes down to personal style and taste,” Ward said. “I personally didn’t care. I don’t think any guy who loves his wife really cares. It would be a very shallow and insensitive thing to care about. I just wanted the cancer to be gone.”
Ward said he didn’t seek counseling but can see why some husbands could benefit from talking it out because the long emotional haul can take its toll. “For a while you’re working on this higher level of adrenaline. You just have to keep going and going and going. It sort of feels like this race,” he said. “And afterward, you are tired. I know that I got older from the whole process.”
Yet Ward said the experience did bring the couple closer.
“This brought everything into focus for us,” he said. “We had to work through it as a couple. You realize later what a major thing we went through. This is what we were talking about in church – for better or worse. Now that we’re through it, we’re more grateful for what we have.”
The Patriot Ledger