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When my wife Brianna’s mother lost her 15-year battle with breast cancer, it was a huge blow to our family but also a wake up call for Brianna. Put simply, her mom would still be with us if she’d taken precautionary steps in the early stages of her diagnosis. So Brianna and I decided together that, after our first child was born, she’d get tested for the BRCA gene mutation that can lead to breast cancer.
We also decided together that, if positive, she’d undergo a preemptive double mastectomy.
When our son Declan was 7 months old, Brianna tested positive. Not only that, she felt something suspect in her breast. I figured she was being dramatic because of her test results. Her doctor told her it was likely a clogged milk duct from breastfeeding. Brianna insisted on a biopsy, which revealed that she had Stage 2 breast cancer and it had already reached her lymph nodes.
The lesson? Unlike your “hunch” that the Vikings will cover the spread this Sunday and you should definitely get in on that action, a woman’s intuition is real. Women: follow it. Men? Shut up and carry her purse.
Within 8 days, she received a double mastectomy with reconstruction. A month later, we were harvesting eggs and freezing embryos because — happy, happy, joy, joy — she had to start chemo and radiation, ASAP. That meant being unable to carry children for at least 10 years, so we needed a (revised) family plan.
A woman’s intuition is real. Women: Follow it. Men? Shut up and carry her purse.
The diagnosis and surgery were a shock and a blur, but there was never a question what our path would be. Why? Because we weren’t afraid to have these conversations after her mother passed. Because Brianna was brave and I was strong enough to put everything else on my shoulders to support her. We are a team — there was no way we would allow her destiny to be decided by fear or neglect. Declan needs a mother and I need my wife. The science, technology and research are too advanced now to ignore what needs to be done.
Getting through the surgery, the treatments, and the aftermath is all about being positive. Can you imagine, as a man, being forced to remove the things that make you feel like a man? Your penis? Your testicles? Your biceps? Your great head of hair? Women who undergo a double mastectomy lose part of what makes them women — what makes them sexy and desirable. So, it’s on us to help them realize what we really desire isn’t their breasts, it’s them.
There was a nipple reconstruction surgery a few months after the double mastectomy. Guys: Trust the science! Her nipples are fantastic!
That doesn’t mean you don’t tell her how good she looks bald; it means acting on it. I remember making love to Brianna when she had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes and no nipples. That might sound weird or crazy or uncomfortable, but I can tell you what it felt like: In those moments, I felt more connected to her than ever, because I knew she could feel how much I loved her.
Having said all that, it’s worth noting: You do get some great new boobs to play with (if that’s your thing). We chose not to spare Brianna’s nipples for safety reasons, so there was a nipple reconstruction surgery a few months after the double mastectomy. Guys: Trust the science! Her nipples are fantastic! And that’s really when she turned the corner to feeling like a woman again.
She’s is your number one priority, but don’t forget that you’re priority 1A. It’s easy to become a sad, drunk, overeater who just waits on her, hand and foot, until she cries herself to sleep. You can’t become resentful that you’re the caregiver, so stay fresh. Burying yourself in work can be helpful to a point, but it doesn’t keep you fresh to deal with the hardest part of your day: coming home. So, exercise, play sports, watch a football game with some friends, go fishing. You can’t be the man she needs you to be if you’re buried in her situation. Do something that disconnects you briefly so that you can run back to her, not away from her.
The author with his wife and son.
Yes, there is an enormous sense of helplessness. Something is trying to kill your loved one and you can’t protect them — that’s heavy. I fought my own anger to ensure I was focused on making her smile and not obsessing about cancer. Time with her and my son was easier; it was when I was alone that I felt the most angry or sad.
It’s a work in progress, and it’s OK to actually admit and even laugh about how bad things suck when they do suck — but move on. It is understandable if she obsesses on the negatives, as long as you stay positive. Remember, because of your teamwork and decision making, she is alive and with you … and that’s the only thing that matters.
I had a reminder of this last Saturday. Declan and I were playing and got upset about something, crying “Where’s Mommy?!” Hearing that still makes my stomach drop and my knees buckle a little bit, thinking of a life where I don’t have an answer to that question. Then, I remember that Brianna is at the gym, and she’ll be coming home to us shortly.
Thanks to Bright Pink, a national non-profit organization focused on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, for connecting Fatherly and Mr. Meade.