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Coping with Her Cancer

Support for male caregivers


A diagnosis of cancer is always difficult, but coping with his wife’s cancer can create financial, practical, and emotional problems for her spouse.

Mark Johnson thought he had a lot on his plate with a demanding full-time job and three daughters under age 14 at home. But the Edmonton resident was in for a serious wake-up call when his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

Suddenly, Johnson found himself navigating new rough waters. He had to take over tasks he formerly shared with his partner, who worked part-time herself, getting groceries, cooking, cleaning, and managing the kids’ schedules.

Keeping it together

He also had to hold the family together emotionally, trying to keep the kids positive and upbeat. Then there was the need to take care of himself. Put it all together, and he says the whole experience would overwhelm even the toughest guy.

“I think men generally are most frustrated by their inability to fix this problem,” Johnson says. “I’ve found it necessary to focus on what can be done rather than what can’t. This feels a bit like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but you can’t let things fall through the cracks. My advice to men would be to become a micromanager and focus on day-to-day accomplishments.”

Although there’s no denying that a spouse’s cancer diagnosis can be daunting, there are steps men can take to help see the whole family through while coping themselves.

His and hers emotional support

“You have to understand that your spouse needs emotional support as much as physical support,” Johnson says. “My tendency, like lots of men, is to focus on physical support and leave emotional support to others. My wife made a comment the other day that she feels safer and more secure when I’m in the room. You can’t let her become overwhelmed by all the bad possibilities.”

A cancer diagnosis affects spouses as well as patients. A 2007 study in the Journal of Cancer Oncology found that spouses reported feeling as much emotional distress as the person going through treatment and that both can benefit from appropriate emotional support.

Men whose partners have breast cancer are at higher risk for severe depression than other men, according to a 2010 study in the journal Cancer.

“It’s hard to remember that you need to be supported as well,” Johnson notes. “You have to overcome your base instinct that tells you to do everything yourself and be able to pick up the phone and ask for help. I’ve been amazed at how many people will help with things like driving and child care if asked.

“I’ve also found it helpful to carve out time to be with people who are positive,” he adds. “My advice would be to connect with people with whom you have deep and longstanding relationships. I think most men have long-term friendships, and we place high value on them.”

Coping with daily realities

Dinner delivery
Along with emotional support, people going through cancer need healthy, regular meals, and so do their family members. But who has the time or energy to cook?

Arranging to have meals made and delivered by friends and relatives is a meaningful way for your loved ones to lend support.

It’s best to pick one person who can organize a schedule for dinner drop-offs. Even easier is designating someone who can take charge of a web program specifically geared for this purpose, such as This website is designed to help people who “need a little TLC during a time of transition or difficulty,” enabling friends or family to “provide a much-needed respite from the daily grind of cooking.”

This user-friendly site allows people to access a calendar to check when meals are needed, pick a date, and see what other people are bringing to avoid repeats. The registry shows the recipient’s likes, dislikes, and allergies.

Helping hand

Keeping the house clean and clutter-free can be challenging at the best of times. Vancouver cancer survivor Janet Smith says that hiring a cleaning service to come every two weeks made a huge difference.

“It was so helpful,” she says. “It lifted a little bit of the burden off my husband. That way all of our energy could go toward recovery and family. It was the best thing we did.”

If hired help isn’t in the budget, now’s not the time to be shy when people ask how they can help. Whether it’s doing laundry, dusting, or vacuuming, friends or relatives usually embrace being assigned a specific task. Like arranging for regular meals, a schedule of household chores can easily be set up, lightening the load of a patient’s spouse and dividing jobs up among many.

Crisis communication

Cancer brings on intense emotions, as well as a potential loss of intimacy, in addition to marital tension. Men sometimes don’t know how to respond to their partner’s fears or express their own.

Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital recently established the Helping Her Heal Group, a series of psychoeducational classes for spouses of women with cancer. First launched in Seattle, Washington, the program consists of five group sessions during which men discuss ways to improve communication, reduce stress, and address their own physical and mental well-being.

The program seems to be successful. A study published in 2008 in Psycho-Oncology found that men who went through the program reported increased self-confidence and self-care, as well as enhanced quality in the couple’s relationship.

Until more hospitals adopt such a program, men can seek individual counselling either through employee assistance programs at work or by getting a doctor’s referral for a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Financial crunch

As if cancer isn’t stressful enough physically and emotionally, it can also take a financial toll. If the patient has to take time off work, she may not earn her full salary.

Making matters worse is that even though Canada has universal health care, cancer drug coverage differs among provinces and between public and private insurers. A patient in one province might have to pay out of pocket for a medication, while someone in another province might not.

The figures are startling: about three-quarters of newer at-home cancer drugs cost over $20,000, while the average cost of a single course of treatment with newer cancer drugs is about $65,000.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 85 percent of Canadians say that if they or their
spouse were diagnosed with cancer, the cost of drugs would negatively impact their personal finances.

To manage or minimize the disease’s financial burden, spouses will want to look at federal contribution programs such as Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, provincial or federal disability benefits or social assistance, and the availability of short- or long-term private disability programs.

Then there are the couple’s personal assets such as savings, bonds, RRSPs, GICs, stocks, and bonds. It’s helpful to meet with a financial planner or to speak openly with a close, trusted friend or relative who has financial expertise about how to get through the course of treatment and recovery as financially soundly as possible.

Resources for men

The Canadian Cancer Society’s website ( offers resources on how to deal with everything from stress to sexuality during cancer, as well as information on support groups. Although much of the content is geared directly to patients, it applies to spouses as well. 

Books such as John W. Anderson’s Stand by Her: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men (Amacom, 2009), Mark Miller’s The Husband’s Guide to Cancer Survival (Angel’s Quill, 2004), and Marc Silver’s Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) during Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond (Rodale Books, 2004), are heartfelt and helpful.

Exercising, resting, laughing, spending time in nature, meditating, and doing yoga are healthy ways to deal with stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association ( has many other suggestions for dealing with stress.



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