Dave Mills was just about to get on his train home from work when his wife of 42 years called to tell him she had breast cancer.
“My whole ride home the thought that kept flashing through my mind was, ‘My wife has breast cancer.’ It was very somber and surreal,” Dave remembers.
That was in March 2018. His wife Mary had a mammogram the year prior and was told to come back in less than a year for a follow up due to her dense breast tissue.
“By the time she went back, she felt a lump in there, but wasn’t sure if it was cancer or some other kind of growth. The mammogram and other scans that afternoon confirmed the cancer,” says Dave.
At 64 years old, Mary was diagnosed with stage 3 HER2-positive cancer in her left breast. The tumor in her breast measured about 10 centimeters in diameter.
“You have to get over the sadness pretty quickly because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot to think about.”
While Mary’s cancer is not considered genetic, she has a long history of cancer in her family.
Her father passed away from cancer at 52 years old, her grandma on her father’s side died from breast cancer at a young age, and her older sister is currently battling late-stage colon cancer. Both her mother and maternal grandmother got breast cancer in their 90s.
Up until this diagnosis, the most serious illness Mary faced was IBS.
“You have to get over the sadness pretty quickly because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot to think about,” Dave recalls. “We had a recalibrated life at that point because treatment started about less than a month after her diagnosis. We didn’t have a lot of time to chew on it too much.”
Getting through treatment
Mary immediately took a leave of absence from her preschool teaching job and delved into three months of intense chemotherapy.
She underwent 3-hour long chemo infusions every third Monday from April through mid-July.
“She was pretty much sick the entire time. The combination of IBS and treatment left her really sick with nausea and diarrhea, constipation and all the things you hear about like losing weight and hair,” Dave says. “Even the two weeks that you’re supposed to be kind of okay she never was. She experienced serious bone pain the week following chemo.”
Mary also developed neuropathy in her right foot, which prevented her from driving.
During this time, Dave is thankful that his employer allowed him to work from home four days a week.
Mary completed her treatment July 16, and in August she underwent a single mastectomy without reconstruction.
“That was a decision she was going to make and I was going to support her no matter what, but I really understood why she didn’t want to [have reconstruction]. The surgeon questioned that a little bit and whether she really wanted to go flat on one side of her chest. After all the chemo side effects, she didn’t want to go through another surgery and more recovery and I totally understood why,” says Dave.
“She’s been very strong about mastectomy. She’s really moved ahead with all of it and that has made it easier for me. I really didn’t think I could admire or love my wife more than I do, but after all of this, I do. I call her my warrior,” he says.
Mary’s pathology after surgery showed no signs of cancer in breast tissue and lymph nodes, so Dave says as far as they know she is cancer-free.
“Somewhat of a miracle since the doctors were even surprised. They expected to have some remanence of it,” says Dave.
Mary is currently undergoing 6 weeks of daily preventive radiation treatment, and will receive an infusion of Herceptin every three weeks until April 2019. From then, she will get annual scans of her breasts.
“We’re getting back to normal. She can eat, exercise, and drive again,” says Dave.
“The person going through treatment is in a very vulnerable position. You need to be strong and steady for them.”
Advice for partners
When Mary was diagnosed, Dave reached out to a female colleague who went through breast cancer to get advice on what her husband did for her.
He says the following proved to be most helpful for Mary and himself.
Be a team
While men can get breast cancer, the percentage is small.
In fact, the American Cancer Society states that breast cancer is about 100 times less common among white men than among white women and about 70 times less common among black men than black women.
“For the most part, this is not something you can personally experience. [When men] do get breast cancer it’s still not the same because men have a chest, [but] they don’t really have breasts and it’s not a big part of their life. So it’s difficult to put yourself in [your wife’s] place because this is not something that can happen to you,” says Dave.
However, he feels acting as Mary’s teammate was a great way to show support.
“I left the decisions to her and I was more in support mode but [would make it a point] to say ‘we have to go through the treatment.’ Always ‘we’ instead of ‘you’,” he says.
Advocate and organize
Dave took on the role of Mary’s advocate as soon as she was diagnosed.
“Not so much that you’re going in [doctor’s offices] and arguing, but most of the time I would go in there and just listen and be the information gatherer because when you’re the patient, your mind is going a whole lot of places,” he explains.
Dave says Mary developed “chemo brain” and had trouble remembering what was said to her.
“So I would try to listen and remember all that was said and also remind her to bring up things she mentioned she wanted to talk with [doctors] about.”
Mary also had a hard time keeping track of medication, so Dave laid out all her pills on the counter in order of how she should take them.
“When you are taking as intense of a treatment as Mary was, you have to take certain pills on certain days and certain times, including an anti-nausea pill that she had to take at 3 a.m., and I’d get up to give to her,” says Dave.
“If you mess it up, the side effects will be worse so you really have to stay on top of the pills,” he adds.
He also wrote out all her doctor’s appointments on a calendar. “I was almost like an executive secretary,” he says.
Provide emotional support
When the physical demands of going through chemotherapy took a toll on Mary, Dave says providing emotional support to her was crucial.
“It’s really hard to go through chemo… when you have really bad side effects like my wife did. Just listen and let them tell you all about how bad they are feeling and all the symptoms they’re having and lightly encourage them by saying ‘I know this is really tough, but I know you can do this and get through this,’” he explains.
Staying strong and steady was Dave’s goal.
“The person going through treatment is in a very vulnerable position. You need to be strong and steady for them. Your spouse really needs to count on you even at their very low points. When they’re not sure they can get through two more months of chemo you have to be strong and comforting,” he says.
Keep things normal
Despite the situation, Dave made it a priority to try to keep their daily life as familiar as possible.
“[Try] to have some pieces of your normal back. Even if it’s just watching TV shows that you like,” he says.
“Try not to make your life all about chemo, though it can be hard when your wife is going through chemo and [she] is having such strong side effects as Mary did,” says Dave.
Seek out specific help
When a partner becomes ill, responsibilities that you shared fall on you, including grocery shopping, doing laundry, washing dishes, and more.
“You just have to stay organized,” Dave advises.
One way he did this was by asking for help. He lined up people to help on the days he had to go into work or on other days he couldn’t be home.
“We have two grown daughters and one of Mary’s sisters who live in the area who I tapped into for help. But I kept that circle of people pretty small,” says Dave.
“There are a couple of friends who I would ask to drive her to a doctor’s appointment… or pick up a medication… but I was a pretty strict gatekeeper because I’d only ask people I trust and I’d say to them after the appointment, ‘I need you to take her home. Don’t take her to lunch or go to a park and sit and talk, she needs to get home and sleep — even if she wants to talk to you. Can I trust you do that for me?’”
Dave also screened visitors.
“I’d tell people not to show up at our house unannounced and that ‘we appreciate the thought but my wife is generally not up for visitors. I don’t want to be at the door and telling you you can’t come in,’” says Dave. “My wife made it clear that she didn’t want to join a support group or talk about [what she was going through] with a lot of people.”
Take care of yourself
Since Mary was diagnosed, Dave started taking care of himself more than ever.
“I know you can’t take care of someone else if you’re not taking care of yourself. I made sure I was getting enough sleep, and that I was exercising, either going to the gym or walking both in the morning and evening. And I ate well,” says Dave.
“Mary’s sister actually paid to have food delivered to our house twice a week and it was for two people, but my wife couldn’t eat any of it so I would stretch it out over 4 days.”
Dave also didn’t want to get sick and pass it onto Mary because her immune system was weak.
Talk with other partners
The one regret Dave does have is that he didn’t talk with other men whose wives went through breast cancer.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, there were several women we know who had breast cancer. I had minimal conversation with [their husbands] over the years, but mostly about how [their wives were] doing. I really hadn’t talked too much in depth about how they were doing,” says Dave. “Looking back, I wish I would have.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.