My sweetheart was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy on one side. I'm searching for ways to let her know that, even without that “body part,” I'm in love with the real her. I want to be supportive and helpful without being offensive.
First of all we want to compliment you on your sensitivity, kindness, love and concern for you wife and your desire to support her during this time of loss. I (Carrie) remember when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We made a trip home to Nebraska from our home in Denver to spend some time with her shortly after her surgery. As her daughter, it gripped my heart to hear her express through tears how she felt looking out what she saw as her now deformed body.
One of the most valuable things for you to do will be to try to understand a little bit of the process of what many women feel during this time of loss, transition and readjustment. Your wife is grieving and making adjustments from the mastectomy and the reality of cancer. This experience can be overwhelming and produce painful emotions including sadness, anger, anxiety and depression. As someone who has gone through several cancer surgeries I (Gary) can tell you that once you’ve had cancer you never look at yourself or at life quite the same way. Don’t be surprised if she experiences and expresses a wide range of emotions, and don’t be surprised if you do too.
While the parts of our body do not determine who we are they are a part of who we are. For a woman breasts are an especially significant part of their anatomy. Your wife will be grieving a loss she doesn’t totally understand. This part of her has been with her for her entire life and now it is gone. Even with surgery she will never be the same and look the same again. This is a significant loss that must be grieved.
During this time of adjustment there are many ways you can be an encourager to her. When she expresses sadness or grief over this loss sit with her, hold her, touch her and join her in her sadness. Instead of trying to make it better for her or “fix” something, ask her first if she knows what she needs from you at that moment. Let her put that into words if she can. If she needs affirmation that she is still beautiful then tell her she is, if she needs reassurance that you will continue to find her attractive then tell her that, but if she cannot put into words what she needs then simply tell her you love her deeply, that you join her in her sadness, that you’re not going anywhere, and that together and with God’s help you will grow through this.
Remember that sometimes comfort and encouragement don’t take the form of words but merely being present. Hold her hand. Stroke her hair. Look in her eyes. Pray with her and for her. Laugh with her. Go for walks. Take her to a movie. Ask the Comforter (the Holy Spirit) to be present in ways that only he can. The most important thing your wife needs from you right now is your willingness to join her in her grief and loss, and your ability to be a visible model of the hope we have because of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross.
Carrie Oliver, M.A., is an educator and a marriage and family counselor. Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D. is executive director of The Center for Relationship Enrichment and Professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. The Olivers have co-authored Raising Sons . . . and Loving It! (Zondervan). Visit Carrie and Gary at www.liferelationships.com.