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You Can’t Fix Breast Cancer But You Can Make it Better

By Don Kerr

Don Kerr, author of Riding Shotgun, & his wife KateOn November 3, 2011, I received a phone call while waiting in line to pick up my sons, 2 and 4, from school. On the other end of the line was my wife’s GP advising me that Kate had a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. The ensuing months brought bewilderment, fear and anger. I struggled to find a way to express what was happening to our family and to provide care.

There is very little support in the breast cancer community for male caregivers. I looked for it. Didn’t find it. Ended up writing it. During the entire experience, I wrote a blog which culminated in my book Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for. I wrote it in the hope that if even a few guys in my position found some helpful advice, it would be worthwhile. And, given that we men need things made as simple as possible, I wrote it very much as a user’s guide - short, practical, actionable and approachable. One of the outcomes was this list of the top five + one tips.

Clearly, the book provides more depth to each of these points and other material as well, but for the purposes of this blog perhaps a condensed version will provide a few nuggets of useful information for those of you riding in the shotgun seat.

1. Decide to show up and acknowledge that you cannot ‘fix it’. When cancer enters your life by striking your partner, you have a choice. Your partner does not. You can choose to confront the adversity or turn tail. You can acknowledge that the fundamental genetic flaw within most men to ‘fix it’ does not apply in the cancer world and accept the reality by adapting to a new way of life of caring, supporting, and listening.

2. Admit you can’t possibly understand what your partner is experiencing. Ask her to teach you. The very first time you’re tempted to comment “I know how you feel,” stifle yourself. Stuff a cracker in your mouth or go for a walk or hide your head under a pillow. You DO NOT know how your partner feels. But you can be empathetic and ask her to explain. Ask her what she needs. Ask her how you can help. Ask her to teach you. And listen, listen, and listen some more. Sometimes that’s all she wants.

3. Become the record keeper and communications officer with all communities. Understand or develop the understanding that you must advocate for your partner with all communities with whom you must interact. You’re about to enter a world of unfamiliar jargon, medical terminology, acronyms, and appointments out the wazoo. It is your job to keep track of everything. Get a journal, use an iPad - whatever. Keep track of everything and very importantly, if you don’t understand something, keep asking until you do. Don’t expect your partner to absorb all the details while she’s still wondering if she will live.

4. Grow a VERY thick skin. You will be shocked by the apparent insensitivity of people. Even those who at the outset seemed so solicitous. Know that this a natural part of your cancer trek and that people experience what I call “caring fatigue syndrome.” You need to grow the thick skin for at least two reasons - unless your partner is very unusual you will become her target for the outpouring of all the anger and frustration she is feeling. It will at times seem unfair. My only advice here is this—suck it up, buttercup. Additionally, you will encounter people, who from fear and/or lack of knowledge, will say the most incredibly insensitive things. You may be tempted to slam them. While that might temporarily feel great it will have no long-term benefit. Again, try to help them understand and if they appear unable, cut them loose. You only need good people around you now.

5. Learn how to practice self care while accepting any and all offers of help. On an airplane, you are advised that in the event of depressurization to put your oxygen mask on first then help others. Same principle applies here. If you’re sucking for air, you’re not going to be much help to you partner, so find people who can give you a little relief by cooking a meal, cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, or just going for a friendly beer.

6. Bonus: Forgive yourself your mistakes. When you blow up one of these five tips (and you will) let it go. Move on and remember this quote from Horace, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”

Don Kerr is a writer living in Burlington, Ontario. Published by Full Circle Publishing, his book, Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for is available is available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/ml8q9nz in digital and print versions and at Full Circle Publishing http://tinyurl.com/lu98lz4 (print only). You can also follow the Kerr’s experience at https://ridingshotgun.squarespace.com/.