When your wife has cancer, getting the word out can be tedious, so break it into sections.
You will need to adapt the information to different people in your relationship circle. Some will want to know everything and others will want just the basics, so be prepared for both.
If you have more than one child, you will be dealing with different maturity levels. My children ranged in age from six to twelve, and I was worried how they would handle the news. The majority of counsel I received from other fathers was to explain it to the children in a direct manner, and then deal with their individual reactions. Do not assume how they are going to react or try to hide information from them. You might make matters worse.
We decided to present the information to our children together. We first asked them what they knew about cancer. Then, each one explained what they had heard or been taught about the disease. I was surprised how informed our two oldest were. We talked about other people they knew who had it. Letting them realize for themselves that it is a common disease helped cushion the blow when we told them about their mom.
Our oldest three children took the news rather well, at least initially. They asked a few questions, and because I had studied up on her type of cancer beforehand, I was able to customize the information into age appropriate terms. However, our six-year-old began to cry, saying he didn’t want his mom to lose her hair. He had a dream several months before the diagnosis that his mom was bald and he could see the veins in her head, which was the basis for his fear.
Although the children’s initial reaction might seem well received, each child will process the news differently. Be prepared to handle different behavioral issues that might present themselves later on. Some of the reactions I noticed were:
· Trouble concentrating in school/drop in grades
· Acting out more than usual
· Increased arguing with parents and others
· Increased dependency on your wife
· An unusual desire to remain home with your wife
Our children exhibited many different emotions in the first few months.
Our oldest son was cruising through his first year of Jr. High with decent grades, but they soon began to drop after the diagnosis. He admitted that his mind would wonder during class about what was happening at home. By the time he regained his focus in class, he would be behind in the discussion or miss taking down important notes. He also became a little more impatient with his younger brothers, due to the fact that they were together more than usual while we were away at all of the doctor’s appointments. He had to become the default babysitter quite a bit and it took him awhile to get used to that role and responsibility.
Our daughter became very nurturing of my wife during the day, but would get possessive of her at bedtime. She really wanted her there to talk to at night and had a hard time sharing her mom with her brothers. She became more of a homebody and a little more closed off socially from her friends. There might have been some embarrassment with the sympathy she would receive from her friends and teachers.
Our youngest two sons bickered a little more than usual, trying to vie for their mother’s attention. They also would sleep over at their grandparents more readily than before due to the changes at home in regards to their mother. Even though we did our best to act as normal as possible, those first few months I think they could sense the apprehension we felt with the unknown and what was coming.
As time passed, however, they found various, personal ways of coping. For example, when my wife lost her hair from chemotherapy, it became a nightly ritual for them to kiss her head before bedtime. It seemed to be their way of embracing the situation and losing their fear. They also became used to the additional attention and inquiries they would get in regards to their mom’s health. They learned a lot about breast cancer and could answer people with great detail.
Sometimes you might not see a return to normal behavior patterns, which means they continue to struggle with it. Just know there are counseling options available if you feel your children’s reactions and emotions are beyond your ability to help. You might not have the open communication kind of relationship, so a family therapist might be useful.
Teachers and Counselors Need to Know
It is also important to let your children’s teachers and school counselors know what is going on so they can inform you if they notice any of the above reactions or other unusual behavior. For instance, when our oldest son’s grades took a nosedive the first quarter after the diagnosis, it was good for him to meet with the school counselor and realize that his lack of concentration was normal, and they could help him work through it.
Your children may miss school due to medical circumstances, so an open dialogue with their teachers is paramount. However, if you can help them keep regular attendance at school and a consistent routine, it will be to their advantage. This will help them pull out of the initial shock quicker.
For children not living at home, you might feel the need to hold back certain details thinking they have their own busy lives to worry about. It is important to be as up-front with them as possible. You could be more technical with the diagnosis than you are with younger children still living at home.
A common reaction for adult-age children is they might want to spend more time with your wife, so don’t be surprised to have a full house again. A few of the husbands I talked to told me their unmarried adult children practically moved back in, which is understandable. The married children with children of their own also increased their visits, which felt at times like they moved back in as well. Just be patient and let them deal with it in their own way.
But, here’s a warning!
If you notice these constant visits and the increased commotion stressing your wife out, you will need to step in. She will not tell the children and grandchildren that they are negatively affecting her. Let your children know that she needs her rest to recover and schedule their visits when she’s less vulnerable to fatigue.
The earlier you inform your wife’s parents the better. My wife told her mother about her lump when she first noticed it, but wanted to wait to tell her father until she knew what her diagnosis was, so he didn’t have to worry.
This was not the best course of action.
If he had known about the lump initially, I think it would have helped to temper his shock. This is hindsight, of course. Making the call to her parents to tell them their daughter has cancer was too big of a bomb to drop without a buffer period for him to get his emotions together.
How her parents react to this news is totally unpredictable. You did not grow up with them, and you probably have limited experience with how they act in stressful situations. Most likely they will feel helpless and will want to be more involved in your life. You might feel inundated with all of the calls you will receive, but understand their position. She is their daughter and they will be as scared as anyone. I had to keep reminding myself that if it were my daughter going through this, I would want to know all the details and how I could help.
You will need to exhibit patience as you explain the same information multiple times. Their concentration level will be interrupted by extreme emotions, as well as making it difficult for them to remember everything you are saying.
Give Them Accurate Information
Make sure you relay information to them as you receive it from the doctor so they know exactly what you know. You do not want them calling the doctors directly because you are not giving them enough information! This will only frustrate you and her doctors.
If you are fortunate enough to have a great relationship with your in-laws, embrace their interest and accept their help where possible. This can strengthen your bond with them. The sooner you subdue any ego of trying to do everything on your own, the easier it will be on all of you.
If you don’t have a great relationship, do the best you can. Remember, your wife has cancer. Communicate through email or have one of your children relay information for you. Do not put it on your wife to deal solely with her parents. She needs to focus on her health, not on what her parents are going through.
Like your in-laws, the sooner your parents know the better. They can also be a great help. My parents offered to take the children during surgeries and treatments, so my in-laws and I could be there for my wife. I was glad they relied directly on me for information and contacted her only when she felt up to it.
Friends & Neighbors
Some men are more outgoing than others. But no matter what personality extreme you gravitate to, you need to get the word out to others as soon as possible with your wife’s blessing, of course. You need to let her decide what information she wants to have shared!
Some husbands will hop on Facebook, Twitter, or chat rooms and tell the world about their wife’s cancer. Do not do this without clearing it with her first!
Once you have the green light and know exactly what she wants to share with others, it’s good to tell your closest friends, neighbors, co-workers, and then your social media contacts. You will be amazed at the support you will receive as cancer has touched everyone’s life in some way. People will try to relate to your situation by recalling their own experiences. Even though no one can truly understand exactly what you both are going through, they can offer empathy and support. This will really help you.
While some people will jump in and offer to help, others might have a more difficult time and withdraw for a while. Understand it can be hard for some to share their emotions.
Do not pick and choose who to tell and who not to tell. Excluding certain people can lead to awkward feelings in the future. For instance, I had failed to make sure some of my close friends from high school new about my wife’s cancer. We went to see one of them in a play. When we went up to congratulate him on his performance, he didn’t even recognize her. She was in the midst of chemotherapy and her appearance had totally changed. Needless to say, he felt like he had ignored her and was very embarrassed that he didn’t know about her cancer. He would’ve made a point of her wellbeing and given her a hug. I felt awful about him not knowing.
Do Not Change
Even though your wife’s cancer will change you, it is important to maintain your relationship with your friends. It can be difficult with all of the added responsibilities and pressures you will deal with, but if you totally withdraw from them, it will be hard to get some of them back. You do not want friends to disappear from your life. Relying on them will bring comfort and strength.
If you have activities that you do with your friends, continue to attend as many as you can. It will give you a great opportunity to bounce any struggles you are having with those that know you better than your average acquaintances. Just remember not to share anything too personal with them that could come back to embarrass you or your wife in the future.
Your Wife’s Contacts
It was suggested to me not to forget my wife’s contacts. Your wife has her own friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. In all of the chaos of getting the word out to the family and your friends, don’t forget to make sure her contacts know as well. It’s easy to see how she could miss some of them with what is happening.
Again, the reaction will be two-fold. Some of your wife’s friends might disappear during this process because of their own emotions toward cancer. But, the majority will rally around her and shower her with love and support. In fact, some of her old neighbors and church friends came out of the woodwork and she was able to renew those friendships again.
One thing you can do is create a contact list of those people that really want to be informed of her progress. I used Facebook to periodically keep our friends up-to-date, but I was given a great suggestion to create a blog that would give a more personal explanation to those people who subscribe. The blog worked great, so you might want to give it a try.
Along this journey, you will make new friends and strengthen relationships with old ones. Those that fade to the background will bounce back in their own time.
Remember not to hold grudges against anyone when they say things that might seem offensive or strange. They may think they are giving you support. You have to make the choice not to be offended at something that was said with good intentions.
You will feel great relief once you get the word out and everyone knows what your family is dealing with.
This article is contributed by Carson Boss, author of Your Wife Has Cancer, Now What?, publishing May 2013.
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