Commentary: Shut up and listen &mdash advice for breast cancer husbands

Four years ago, my wife told me not to build a sukkah. She had a good reason. In early September 2001, Marsha was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer — a tumor in each breast. Cancer was pretty much running our lives. We were visiting doctors every other day for more opinions as Marsha tried to settle on a team of physicians and appropriate treatments. And did I mention we were planning our younger daughter’s bat mitzvah?

So Marsha was absolutely right. How could I find a couple of hours to gather up the two-by-fours that sit in our garage all year and turn them into a prefab sukkah?

But I didn’t listen. Years earlier, Marsha was the one who had wanted us to become a family of sukkah builders. It meant a great deal to her to erect the fragile shelter, where our family would fend off yellow jackets and enjoy a few meals. With no experience at sukkah building, I was reluctant at first. It seemed like a lot of work for one week of dinners al fresco. But I came around. It was great having our own, intimate backyard booth, harking back to the days of the Bible.

Building a sukkah had become a family tradition, and I didn’t want cancer to take it away from us. With the help of my two daughters, Maya and Daniela, I put up the structure. As we sat in the semi-rickety sukkah, peering up at the stars through boughs of green overhead, we felt as if we’d found temporary refuge from the breast cancer ordeal.

There were other times I didn’t listen to my wife during her battle with breast cancer. And in those cases, not listening was a big mistake. Like the day Marsha called me at work to tell me that a blunt radiologist had eyeballed her mammogram and said, “Sure looks like cancer to me.” I ignored the anguish in Marsha’s voice. I pretended everything was fine. I stayed at work until quitting time. And when I did come home, I still wasn’t sure how to listen. My instinct was to try and cheer Marsha up instead of paying attention to how she was really feeling.

As the weeks went by, I honed my listening skills. In the doctor’s office, I took notes and would later read them back to Marsha, who wasn’t able to absorb all of the awful information. Having a second pair of ears at an appointment is a benefit for any patient.

Listening, I found, can be complicated. What if your wife says, “You don’t have to come to the doctor with me.” Maybe she wants to spare you from the inconvenience of taking off from work. Then again, maybe you’re not good when it comes to medical matters, and she’d rather have her sister the nurse with her. You can take your wife at her word. Or you can follow the advice of Anne O’Connor, a nurse care coordinator at Georgetown University’s Lombard Cancer Center. If your wife claims she

doesn’t need you by her side, she suggests saying, “I love you and I need to know what’s going on. We’re in this together.”

Listening also means letting your wife speak, and not cutting her off if she wants to talk about how scared she is. Many people think optimism is a cure for cancer. Alas, it is not. But studies have shown that breast cancer patient who let out all their emotions cope better with the stress of treatment. Sometimes, Marsha just felt lousy, and all she wanted to do was talk about it. And who better to listen than me?

Unfortunately, men aren’t born listeners. For guys who need a crash course, oncology social worker Patricia Spicer suggests “paired sharing.” The coordinator of the breast cancer program for CancerCare, Spicer recommends that a breast cancer patient and her husband schedule a half hour each week when the house is quiet. Have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. And talk. In this exercise, the wife tells her husband what she is feeling. He repeats it back to her. That means a husband really has to listen to what his wife is saying instead of figuring out his response to her feelings. Then he would tell her his thoughts. And she would echo them. “It’s amazing what you hear,” Spicer says. And what you don’t hear. It’s eye-opening to think you’re parroting your spouse’s feelings, only to have your spouse say, “I never said that.”

Maybe that’s why cancer experts told me that the breast cancer husband’s motto should be “shut up and listen.”

To my surprise, I could have learned some of the same lessons by turning to the Torah.

In the story of Sarah and Abraham, Abraham is distressed about Sarah’s wish to “cast out” Hagar and her son. And what did the Lord advise Abraham? In His infinite wisdom, He said, “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.”

So there you have it: biblical advice for the breast cancer husband. And the only time you don’t have to listen is if she tells you that you don’t have to build a sukkah.

Marc Silver, an editor at U.S. News & World Report, is the author of “Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond.”