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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Helping partners of breast cancer patients cope

Pink Lemonade Project pioneers peer support for spouses, particularly men, struggling with a loved one’s diagnosis

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 6, 2019, 5:20am

Fighting breast cancer is the very definition of tough. Finding a community of other survivors can help.

But for partners of patients — and for men, especially — that community can be hard to find. A new local mentorship program from Pink Lemonade Project is working to change that, providing peer support for men who love women who have breast cancer.

“It’s still in its infancy,” said Don Stose, husband of a breast cancer survivor, co-chair at Pink Lemonade Project and one of three newly trained male mentors with Pink Lemonade. “Quite frankly, three is really filling the void right now.”

The group first met in March. Before that, a resource specifically targeted at husbands and partners supporting a loved one with breast cancer didn’t exist in Clark County, Stose said. The vacuum could be lonely — and confusing.

“There’s a lack of help that way because physicians are so busy,” Stose said. “So patients, but also family members, are left wondering, ‘Well, who’s going to answer all of these questions that I have?’ ”

Stose, who is also the mayor of Ridgefield, said there was a real dearth of resources aimed at men affected by a loved one’s breast cancer diagnosis. By becoming a mentor, he hopes to become a person he himself had needed.

Dean Stenehjem, the former longtime superintendent at the Washington State School for the Blind, is also a male mentor. Rounding out the trio is Robert Decker, whose wife, Wendi, serves as a Pink Lemonade mentor.

They take phone calls from individual men referred to them by nurse navigators at hospitals such as PeaceHealth Southwest and Legacy Cancer Institute.

The group advises its cohorts on how to be the best possible caretakers for their partners.

“Number one: Make sure that you attend all of your wife’s or significant other’s appointments. Be there,” Stose said sternly.

But the new Pink Lemonade group is also hoping to provide an outlet for men to vent about what they’re going through personally. Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone who gets it.

“When we receive a call, the first thing we do is just listen. Just listen to what the person is concerned about,” Stose said.

The male mentors are also starting to put together group meetings, where participants can get together and hang out socially.

Impact on partners

A body of research suggests that male partners of people with breast cancer suffer severe distress and often lack readily-available resources to help them cope.

Exacerbating the problem, men — for a whole host of complex reasons — can tend to ignore or internalize pain rather than seeking help from others. And on top of that, there’s often a well-intentioned reluctance among partners to consider their own wellbeing, at all, along with guilt over centering themselves in the conversation surrounding their loved one’s breast cancer, even briefly.

“For the most part, spouses dealt with their emotional response to her breast cancer on their own, including shutting down their own feelings and emotions. Some kept their feelings to themselves when little support was offered to them by others. Some kept feelings to themselves because they did not want to burden their wives,” states one study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.

Some of the husbands found outside support, but many felt isolated, the study found.

“Spouses were overwhelmed, devastated and unprepared to handle what was happening to themselves, to their wife, and to their relationship as a couple,” the 2010 study stated.

“This substantial distress deserves early attention by clinicians.”

Columbian staff writer