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Volume 2, Issue 1
Spring 2006:

Man to Man: Finding Comfort as Caregivers

Woody Weingarten

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Spring; 2(1):a19

"Your wife's OK, but the tumor was cancerous," said the surgeon.

"Oh, God," I thought. "Why her? Why her? I can't handle even the idea of her dying."

I couldn't cry. I couldn't scream. I wanted to do both.

"We believe we got it all," added the doctor.

So I relaxed. Just a bit. And was just a little less scared.

It would be a while before I'd learn about the unholy standard breast-cancer treatment trio of "slash, poison and burn" — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — and the emotional roller coaster my wife and I would ride in tandem for a long, long time.

It would be much later, after her 10-year post-treatment milestone had been passed, before I'd fully accept that cancer is chronic, that living well on a day-to-day basis is the best revenge against cells running amok.

It would take virtually no time, however, to realize I couldn't always be Mr. Macho, couldn't always know how to "fix it," especially when "it" was cancer and its related problems.

It also took no time at all to recognize I needed the help of men who had survived or were still going through similar situations.

Luckily, I found that support at a rare weekly drop-in support group for guys in Marin County just north of San Francisco. Each man's mate had — or has — breast cancer.

A decade later, a cliché bounces off the walls of my brain: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm now the point man for the Man to Man group, and some of the old timers have come and gone. But the original mission is intact — to provide an easygoing, compassionate, facilitator-less forum in which each member can discuss and understand the difficulties of becoming something that's usually outside a man's nature, a primary caregiver.

Each long-termer outlines how he's been taught to be loving; each tells how he must reassure his partner that she and their relationship will survive.

Newcomers are apt to hear that most group members harbored the same terrors and angers as their own, as well as the frustrations about their needs coming second to those of their partners.

"Women, of course, are the ones whose lives are being threatened. It's natural they get the biggest share of attention and sympathy," one guy noted. "But I would like just a little of those things."

Through the good times and bad, most men loathe the stepchild-status breast cancer gives them. But the marvelous synergy of our group often acts as an antidote to that particular toxin.

Our fellowship stems from us all paddling to keep the same boat afloat — and from our huge conversational range. We couldn't care less if what we say is clichéd, trite, hackneyed. For the most part, the conversations themselves lift us.

Members of Marin Man to Man always prefer chatting about mundane, non-cancer subjects. We've been known to gab about fix-it projects and auto repairs, weather, computers, the size of mosquitoes, vacations, buffets, politics, dogs, motorcycles, religion, five-legged cows, and jobs. Contrary to ordinary men's groups, perhaps, sports rarely makes it onto our agenda.

But breast cancer remains Topic A — whenever anyone needs or wants to talk about the disease, about new drugs or treatments, about side-effects.

And always the emphasis stays on making members feel less isolated, misunderstood, uncertain or scared.

The group, Marin-Man-to-Man, has given me a safe place where I can vent my difficulties, my questions, my ignorance. And it remains a place where I can be totally vulnerable yet be sure there are others present who can relate to every sensation.

Despite the appearance of so-called miracle drugs such as Herceptin, our top buzzword, after "death," never changes: Recurrence.

One guy, a dapper thirtysomething stockbroker, was married to a woman who'd just experienced a second outbreak. "I dealt with all my demons the first time around," he declared, voicing what many of us experience. "Now I just take it for what it is. I'm convinced this new round of chemo will get rid of the cancer for now, and maybe it'll come back in two or three years and we'll have to do it all over again."

Unanimously, our favorite part is battling fears with smiles.

One guy told about going to bed with a hand-vacuum to pick up his wife's hair that had fallen out: "I'd kept thinking, originally, that there were an awful lot of spiders in bed."

At another meeting, attendees focused entirely on our mates' sleeping habits. We all chuckled at tales of "snoring that could wake the dead," "my wife, the heat-seeking missile" and "her coming in for 'the big snuggle' while unconscious."

But even when we're dragged into absolute seriousness — if someone's partner has taken a bad turn, for example — we're always pleased to share, to bond.

We were all excited, too, by one "graduate" moving to Oregon and starting a parallel group.

And there's always room for more.

Woody Weingarten, third from left, meets in a relaxed setting with other members of the Marin Man to Man caregivers' support group. Photo credit: Marin Independent Journal/Frankie Frost.

More information about Marin Man to Man is available at http://www.marin-man-to-man.org.

Much of the text above appears, in different form, in the writer's manuscript of "Roller Coaster," a full-sized book that details Weingarten's 10-year trip with his wife through the world of breast cancer. It is available for prospective agents or publishers to examine. For information, contact the author.

Copyright © 2006 Sherwood L. Weingarten

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