The grief men face when their wives undergo mastectomies

I have given anesthesia for a lot of breast surgery. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the fog of pain and sorrow surrounding a double mastectomy.

All surgery is invasive in some way. Amputations, in particular, have a horror all their own; the idea that destroying someone – cutting off a body part, violating a coherent whole – should be necessary in order to save a life is almost too horrible to bear. When that kind of mutilation reaches the most private and intimate parts of people’s bodies and lives, the very air around patients and their loved ones can be heavy with unspoken suffering.

As a woman I cannot imagine the grief of such a dramatic physical loss. I remember having bouts of depression when I was recovering from an elbow fracture years ago. Anxiety, too – I was afraid I would lose the ability to use my arm and hand effectively. Certainly that kind of functional loss would have been devastating. But there’s something about mastectomy that makes the loss seem so utterly cruel, the devastation completely personal. Maybe I’m wrong, but I imagine the tears I would shed at having to face a mastectomy would be much more agonized and primal than those I shed worrying about my arm.

I wonder if anyone ever talks about the grief of husbands and partners. I think about that every time I see a patient supported by a spouse or partner who clearly loves her deeply and truly. I still remember the husband of a beautiful young woman who replied, after she said, “I love you” right before we wheeled her into the operating room for her mastectomy, “I am in love with you.” More recently there was another kind, compassionate husband who kissed his wife and said affectionately, “Bye, Babe. Love you,” then looked forlornly at us as we wheeled the bed away from him to take her to the O.R. He looked as if he didn’t know what to do, as if he were about to cry.

In that one moment a thousand thoughts seemed to be emanating from his lost look: There goes the woman I love. I’m so sad for her. I have so many memories of her. The nights we held each other, the children she nursed, the decades of flirting with each other in the kitchen. How can I not feel her pain when it’s my pain too? Is it wrong that I feel it’s my loss too? I love her so much. How could this be happening? I miss her already. I miss what we had. I’m scared of what’s coming. My heart hurts. I just wanna scream and cry. It’s not fair.

I’m guessing, of course. But that’s what his face seemed to say. Some men or women might feel people would criticize them for grieving the loss of their beloved partner’s breasts. I think when there is real love between two people – sexual love, physical love, spiritual love, and committed love that inspires them to work on a lasting relationship every single day – then such grief is completely understandable and natural and inevitable and right. When you love someone body and soul, then Body and Soul are inextricably intertwined in the forging and deepening of the relationship.

A loving partner would be saddened not because he or she thinks breasts are the end-all and be-all of female sexuality, or that a woman’s worth is related to her body parts, but rather because such surgery strikes so visibly and painfully at the heart of a lot of shared stories, intimate moments, mutual devotion, and cherished physicality. Such raw, heavy grief hurts all the more because it is often unspeakable.

One time I was discussing a painful experience with someone, with my husband listening, and while I was describing the regret I felt I started crying a little. I looked up and saw my husband’s face full of love and support for me, his eyes a little wet as he felt in part the pain I was feeling. So often the beauty of compassion between partners is overlooked or forgotten, but when it exists the connection between the two can be felt by everyone in the room.

This is what I see when I meet supportive husbands, boyfriends, and lovers of women who must have mastectomies. I wish I could tell them their profound grief hasn’t gone unnoticed, unwelcome; that the love to which it bears witness matters tremendously and has touched those of us who are taking care of the women they love.

Anesthesioboist T is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Notes of an Anesthesioboist.

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  • Happy Hospitalist

    To all the husbands out there, may you breast in peace.

  • David Locke

    Of course we do not know what to do. There is no book that tells us what to do in every situation. There is no place to turn. A guy’s buddies won’t know either. A guy’s father probably doesn’t know either. The guy’s preacher probably won’t know for that matter.

  • Kaye

    Having had a mastectomy myself, and having watched my husbands pain as I was wheeled into surgery, I can tell you one aspect of this pain is the fear of losing your beloved to cancer and the hope the surgery will show no invasive lymph nodes, etc. My feeling was, I can live without a breast but my children may not live well without their mother and my husband without his best friend and lover.

  • Tad

    When my wife was faced with the choice of whether to have a full mastectomy and be done with it, or a lumpectomy and the slight possibility of the cancer returning someday, we thought about it for about 2 milliseconds. It’s just a breast. There is no sexually symbolic meaning to a breast that justifies putting her life at risk even a little bit. Neither of us have ever wondered even for a second whether we made the right decision.

  • Lyn

    As a woman who has had a mastectomy, I can only hope that every doctor participating in this surgery would have the kind of empathy that you have, anesthesiologist T. I commend you on the consideration you give to those who love your patient.

    However, when you use the word “mutilation” to describe what has happened to my body, I feel much more self conscious… if the sight of my mastectomy is far more gruesome, and unsightly than I had realized. The reality is that my chest looks much like my husband’s chest…….not mutilated.

    This is not the first time I have heard “mutilated” to describe my surgery, and I think it would behoove those involved in mastectomies, to think about the impact that word has on patients facing this surgery. We need not add to the disfigured image, already facing these patients.

  • Victoria

    Thank you for this. It was so beautifully written and although I have not had the misfortune of having to go through this, the feelings you express are just the way I felt when my husband had his prostate removed. The feelings of loss of what we had, fear of what was to come, I want to cry and scream. So, you see, it is pretty much the same, be it male or female. Love is love.

  • epatientgr

    Thank you Anesthesioboist T. for putting in words unspoken feelings. I have met several doctors who play it cool and objective and leave patient and loved one, just as terrified and anxious about the outcome. What counts more in such moments is a bit of empathy from the doctor. Why are surgeons so stingy of feelings of compassion? Do they have any or does their daily exposure to the grief and anxiety of patients walled them behind a seemingly “professional” attitude?

  • Elaine Schattner, M.D.

    Like other doctors, most but not all of the surgeons I know are nice, compassionate people trying to help others. This post molds into a breast-fixated, emotionally plastic culture.

    Focus on the woman’s life.

  • Jackie Fox

    You are spot on with the grief husbands feel. I had a (single) mastectomy for DCIS two years ago and no matter how much you tell yourself it’s just another body part, there’s just something so personal about it. And as you said, my husband doesn’t consider breasts the be-all and end-all; he was just sorry I had to go through it. I wrote a book about my experience and when he read it recently he told me it made him sad. I was a bit surprised by that because when I think back on it, I remember all the good things (which outweighed the bad by far). But it made him sad to remember what I (we) went through.

    The day after my mastectomy, when our family doctor stopped by the hospital he asked me how I was doing, but then he did the neatest thing. He turned to my husband and asked how he was doing. He gets it, and so do you. Thanks for a great post.

  • Paul Dorio

    As a patient advocate, and as a physician, it is imperative that we consider the feelings and emotional state of others when we write/speak. I agree with Lyn that negative terms do not help. I also am surprised that anyone could suppose that the loss of an arm is worse or better (terrible to compare them even!) than mastectomy (one or both!).

    Our society has put a tremendous value on certain aspects of our bodies. That value is not entirely aesthetic, of course – as the breast nurtures our children and starts them off on a healthy life – but partly so. To add to what Lyn said, when a loving husband looks at his wife in pain, as I did when my wife was in labor for the first time (prematurely delivering, and losing, twins at twenty weeks!) there are only a few things that go through his mind — PLEASE DON’T TAKE HER FROM ME! — WHY CAN’T I TAKE HER PAIN AWAY! — I FEEL SO DAMNED HELPLESS! — The spouse’s mentality typically has less to do with “disfigurement” or “mutilation,” or any other horrible words that observers throw into the discussion. We can’t imagine what life will be like without this vibrant, beautiful and strong person at our side.

    Thank you for your observation that (any) surgery is traumatic, particularly, in our society, when it involves parts that are socially sensitive and that affect our psyche and personas. But in order to allow a person to heal, mentally and physically, we all must understand that invasive surgical methods are currently the best way that we know to help someone stay alive so that they can be with their children and spouse or loved ones for a bit longer.

  • Teri Smieja

    As a woman who has undergone a double mastectomy (prophylactic due to the BRCA1 mutation) I found this article to be very thoughtful, and compelling. A great thing to keep in mind – when women go through surgeries like these, their husbands go through them too, in a different way. They have pain and grief, just like we do. They watch the woman they love in such emotional turmoil before surgery, and then comes the physical pain too, afterward. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful husband by my side, holding my hand through it all. Sadly, not all husbands are quite as supportive, but I sure which they were.

    Thank you for a wonderful article. I will be sharing it.

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