Husbands and boyfriends, what would you do if your better half was diagnosed with breast cancer? Breast cancer is the number one female cancer in Singapore – one in 13 women get it in their lifetime and 400 Singapore women die from breast cancer every year. That’s a lot of women affected – and probably, as many, men.
When former actress and radio deejay Jamie Yeo, 46, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, it threw her into the terrifying unknown. She’d found a lump during a breast self-examination. “I was extremely blessed that it was an early-stage, less aggressive tumour,” revealed Yeo in an Instagram post on Oct 1, in support of breast cancer awareness month.
Fortunately, lumpectomy and radiation therapy, and an ongoing regimen of pills, took care of the breast cancer.
What kept her going: The steadfast support from her British consultant husband, Rupert, 45. “When we found out about the breast cancer, he supported me by cooking wholesome food using ingredients we researched about, including Himalayan salt, broccoli, and so on.”
The second thing he did was to simply, not impose his views on her. “What I appreciated most was, although I was furiously googling away what to eat or what to do, which threw up some contrasting opinions, he never once stopped me or nagged at me not to.
“Instead, he knew that I would come to my senses and realise that there is just too much misinformation out there. He just supported me in my journey, and joined me as I navigated the unknown,” Yeo said.
EMPOWERING MEN TO BETTER SUPPORT THEIR WOMEN
“For years, breast cancer has been perceived as mainly a woman’s issue and having little or nothing to do with men,” said Natalie Lau, Head of Advocacy and Communications at the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF).
To better equip men to support their partners, the breast cancer organisation launched its Dear Men campaign. “The campaign serves to encourage men to talk about breast health and remind the women they hold dear – mothers, sisters, daughters and other loved ones – to prioritise breast cancer screening,” said Lau.
Nicholas Ng, Digital and Performance Marketing Manager from the BCF’s Advocacy & Communications team, said that although men are often seen as pillars of strength, they too, face physical and emotional challenges while supporting a partner with breast cancer.
Societal expectations dictating that men should suppress their thoughts and emotions can hinder them from becoming effective caregivers and support for their loved one facing breast cancer.
Men, if a woman in your life has been diagnosed with breast cancer, here’s what you want, and don’t want, to do.
After losing her breasts and putting on 16kg, she started a fitness studio to help breast cancer survivors
1. DO PRIORITISE OPEN COMMUNICATION AND MUTUAL RESPECT
Openly talking about breast cancer may be difficult initially. What’s important is to acknowledge her feelings and validate her concerns. “It’s about genuinely connecting with our spouses on a deeper level, and making informed decisions,” said Ng.
Avoid going into the “default mode” of troubleshooting the problem, where men typically focus on logic, facts or immediate solutions, Ng added.
Make time to accompany her to medical appointments. There can be an overwhelming array of biopsies, diagnostic and imaging tests, treatment options and approaches to process, as well as interactions with various healthcare professionals.
“Navigating them with a trusted ally dramatically improves outcomes, especially in seeking clarity and reassurance in decision-making,” said Ng.3. DO HELP WITH PRACTICAL MATTERS
This includes daily tasks such as managing the household, running errands and stepping up or assuming a leadership role in parenting and taking care of elderly parents. “By relieving your other half of some of these duties … you allow her to focus on her recovery,” said Ng.
BREAST CANCER FOUNDATION: SUPPORT FOR PATIENTS AND THEIR PARTNERS
The Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) runs a Befrienders Programme for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer and their caregivers. A male befriender will journey with the couple.
BCF also has a Caregivers Support Group, where husbands can be vulnerable without fear of being judged. They can share experiences, ask questions in a forum dedicated to caregivers, or talk to a therapist/counsellor about coping with their emotions and caregiving challenges.
The foundation’s Pink Talks are open to both women affected by breast cancer and their partners or caregivers. Past topics include Wills and Lasting Power of Attorney; Taking Care of your Mental Health; and Embracing Love: Exploring the Intersection of Breast Cancer & Intimate Relationships. Upcoming talks include a series of rehabilitative physiotherapy sessions, counselling clinics and topics catered to male caregivers.
Also check out BCF’s family-friendly activities. This includes Pink Walks (guided explorative fun tours of Singapore), dragon boating with the Paddlers In Pink team and signature events like the Pink Ribbon Walk on Oct 29, with fringe activities for kids.
4. DO LEARN ABOUT NUTRITION
Like Yeo’s husband, Rupert, the man could cook or buy her nutritious food. Tan Shiling, senior dietitian at Mount Alvernia Hospital, said some patients may experience nutrition-related complications from chemotherapy, such as nausea, vomiting, mucositis (mouth sores), dry mouth, taste changes, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating during treatment.
“You may want to consult a dietitian for a personalised meal plan so both the patient and caregiver are on the same page in managing her nutritional needs,” she advised.
The Health Promotion Board’s My Healthy Plate guidelines remain the keystones of eating well, even for cancer patients. These outline the different food groups and serving sizes to consume daily, for a healthy balanced diet.
Ng added that while husbands should encourage a positive outlook, they should not force their spouse to be constantly upbeat. “Allow her to express a range of emotions, including fear and sadness,” he said.
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6. DO RESPECT HER AUTONOMY
Instead of making assumptions, ask her how you can best support her. “Do not attempt to (come to her) ‘rescue’. Instead, collaborate, respect her choices and preferences,” said Ng.
Do celebrate milestones and victories. This provides positivity, hope and motivation. “(Re)define success – the cure and being cancer-free is a journey rather than a destination. Find moments of joy and savour them,” said Ng.
9. DO PLAN FOR THE LONG TERM
Stay engaged in the journey, offering help, whether emotional or practical, even beyond the immediate treatment phase.
Finally, men, don’t underestimate the value of your contributions. Know that your support makes a profound difference in influencing outcomes.
“Studies support the view that the breast cancer experience must be considered as ‘shared’,” said Ng. How much psychological distress cancer survivors and their partners experience, is inter-dependent with whether they recognise it as a ‘family’ disease, to be overcome together.
Support from a husband may not look the same for every woman. Snehal Rajendra Ponde, 40, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and co-authored the book Don’t Ask Me How I’m Doing, said her husband Daksh Pratap Singh, 40, is “my biggest cheerleader, my biggest supporter, my biggest challenger as well”.
“He always tells me, ‘You’re not doing enough. Please stop wallowing in self-pity now.’ He knows just how to push me after knowing me for so many years now.”
Indeed, by knowing your spouse’s love language, your customised TLC will help her to soldier on. So yes, Men: You matter in the breast cancer fight.
Read this year’s breast cancer stories by CNA Women:
Why I went ‘topless’ on social media after breast cancer surgery: ‘Seeing my scar in pictures reminds me that I am still me’
Stage 3 breast cancer kicked her out of her comfort zone: 'I am bolder and more willing to live my life well'
'It’s all for the women': This nurse has cared for breast cancer patients for 25 years and started a support group
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.