If somebody is going through an incredibly difficult ordeal like breast cancer, what would you say to give them comfort? In most cases, it is harder for a man to figure out the correct response than for a woman.
“I’ve seen men break down and cry. But because men have a bit more of an ego than women, they don’t really want to talk,” Mike Wan, 35, says. Being open and vulnerable is not their forte. Men want to fix things, provide solutions, nip things in the bud. But when men need to support women in their lives, talking about feelings is something they must learn. Mike shares advice from his own caregiver journey.
Start by offering practical help
When his wife Tracy Hoo discovered a lump in her breast in 2016, Mike was calm and optimistic but he told her to get it checked just in case.
Mike was sure it was nothing. Tracy was young, after all, just 29 years old at the time. The couple weren’t even a year into their marriage and the blush of young love hadn’t yet faded. That rosy glow coloured his expectations that Monday morning when Tracy went to see the family doctor. And when she called him to say that she’d been referred to a breast surgeon at Raffles Hospital to get an ultrasound and biopsy done, he remained positive.
The next week, he accompanied her to collect the results of her biopsy. “Tracy already expected that it was probably cancer from the initial ultrasound,” Mike says. She’d seen the dark smear in the image and heard the radiologist and her assistant speak in hushed tones. He blocked out his own fears. “I thought, no point speculating, right?”
At the ill-fated moment that Tracy was summoned to the doctor’s office, Mike had been in the washroom. She recalls with a smirk that she had to receive the news without him by her side. “When I entered the room, Tracy was in tears and it was then that I knew,” Mike says sheepishly.
Poor timing aside, a small part of him was at peace because at least they finally had confirmation. Immediately, he swung into his typical problem-solving mode. As Tracy wept, he grilled the doctor on what the diagnosis meant, what the treatment options were and how much each would cost.
After that day, Mike found ways to provide practical support, sorting things out with her insurance company, then desperately Googling, reading forums and filling up on information. He studied what kind of food he had to prepare for her and subsequently gave up all of his indulgences in exchange for a diet of steamed broccoli and soup. He took over her share of the household chores and occasionally got an earful when he got things wrong (“I once bought salt when I was supposed to get sugar”).
Emotional support comes next
Over the coming days and weeks, Tracy would become quiet and withdrawn. Mike knew it was attributable to the diagnosis, but he couldn’t help but feel affected by the change, though he made sure not to show it.
“All I could do was be there for her,” says Mike. “To poke her whenever she seemed down and talk to her about how she was doing.” He confesses that he wasn’t used to talking to her in this manner. “We never talked so seriously about things before. We’re used to casual, light-hearted banter, and now the banter was gone.”
Among the heavy topics they discussed was how often Tracy would go for chemotherapy. She wanted to go once a week to shrink the tumour as quickly as possible, but Mike was worried that her body wouldn’t be able to handle it and wanted her to go once in two weeks instead.
Ordinarily, Mike would have stated this in a matter-of-fact or even flippant tone, the kind you adopt with someone you’ve known for years. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances. “You have to learn to be gentle and reassuring in your approach,” he says. With some coaxing, Tracy agreed.
At the end of almost half a year of chemotherapy, the tumour was still 2cm wide. Tracy was devastated to learn that she’d have to remove her breast. “I had made up my mind that a mastectomy was just another option,” Mike says. “The priority was to save her life.”
To Tracy, the decision was much more difficult as it threatened her self-image. More importantly, she worried that Mike would mind how she looked. “I didn’t realise she was concerned about what I thought,” he says. He did his best to reassure her constantly with words of encouragement. For instance, he pointed out that she’d look attractive in certain kinds of lingerie. He took many photographs with her and made her feel as normal as possible.
Seek support from people who’ve been through it
Tracy and Mike didn’t know anyone their age who had gone through the same challenges. The women Tracy and Mike knew who had breast cancer were mostly in their 40s and 50s, and Tracy couldn’t relate to their experiences. She thinks that she would have benefited from meeting others her age who faced the same struggles with regards to their career, appearance and so on.
So now, the couple attends the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) support group to help other younger women and their partners address big concerns such as fertility and job security. They’re huge advocates for getting involved in the BCF community.
This year, BCF is partnering with TAG Heuer to promote breast cancer awareness. From Oct 1 to 31, 2018, TAG Heuer will pledge 5 per cent of the sales of their timepieces from the three TAG Heuer Singapore boutiques at Wisma Atria, ION Orchard and Marina Square to BCF. On Oct 16, TAG Heuer will hold a private cocktail event and silent auction to raise funds for BCF. It will donate a Carrera Lady Rose Gold & Diamonds to BCF for the auction.