Showing Your Feelings about Your Partner’s Breast Cancer: Timing Is Everything

You just found out that your partner has breast cancer. Do you cry in front of her to show that you are caring and sensitive, or do you hold back your natural tears to show that you are her rock? There’s a thin line between being strong, which is good, and being unfeeling, which is bad. And sometimes timing is everything.

When Emily learned that she had breast cancer, she was at work. Stunned, she called me to share the bad news. I told her I would bring her home.

On my way to pick her up, I thought about what I had just learned and I imagined possible outcomes. I was alternately terrified and calm. I wondered how I should react when I saw her. Should I be strong and show no fear so that she could see I was her protector? Or should I break down sobbing in her arms because I was scared of losing her? I rationalized that I had to keep my cool because I had to drive us home.

As I pulled into the parking lot, Kathie, our friend, who had been waiting in the lobby, came out to meet me. She climbed into the front seat and asked right away, “How are you feeling?”

Her question surprised me; I was waiting to hear how Emily was doing. I started to cry softly, not difficult if I didn’t say a lot.

I answered Kathie’s question in sentence fragments. But I dutifully kept my cool. “Are you ready to go in?” Kathie asked. I held back my tears, wiped my eyes, and nodded that I was ready.

Emily was by now deep in shock; when she saw me she began crying again. I let myself cry in our embrace but forced myself to remain composed.

Later that evening, while Emily was asleep, I sat downstairs at my computer and cried freely. At the time, it was the right decision.

Six weeks later, by now 12 days after Emily’s first chemotherapy treatment, I lost my job. Emily was physically and emotionally fragile. In addition, she’s the one in our partnership who traditionally has handled the bill paying so when money is tight she’s the first to feel the stress.

I didn’t tell her for three weeks because I didn’t want to add to her stress. In retrospect, I’m glad I waited as I did. But holding on to that secret did little to enhance my own emotional well-being.

Only after a trip together to our nutritional oncologist, where I witnessed a new level of strength and confidence on Emily’s part, was I willing to take a chance and tell her. I steeled myself to the possibility that she would panic that we were going to lose the house, and I prepared to condemn myself for hindering her progress by being so self-centered.

To my surprise, she was calm, confident, resigned, spiritual. “The worst that’ll happen is we lose the house, we move to an apartment, and I support us on my salary,” she said, adding, “All that matters is that I’m alive.”

Once she knew, I could begin to work out a job-hunting strategy with her in the support role. The role reversal was empowering to us both.

If such open communication is more than you’ve ever been able to handle by yourself, know that a support network already is in place in your hospital and community. Social workers, psychiatrists, support groups, religious leaders, interested individuals, and, of course, your surgeons and their assistants are there for you. Visit them with your partner. They may not know you need help until you ask for it.

So ask for it.

(This entry was excerpted from my e-book Your Partner Has Breast Cancer: 21 Ways to Keep Sane as a Support Person on Your Journey from Victim to Survivor. It may be purchased at or Please feel free to provide a review, good or bad. Print version coming soon. Thanks to for inviting me to post this excerpt on their site.)