Ask Dr. Giles: How do I help my husband deal with my diagnosis?

Carol writes:

I have been dx w/cholangiocarcinoma. I’m 66 and about 3 wk. I have always been healthy and began losing a lot of weight. Went to my Dr, had tests, finally biopsy and dx. At first it was believed they could resection but now find it can’t be done. My husband and I have been married 47 1/2 yr and have two sons. We’ve raised our granddaughter who is bipolar among other things and she can’t live alone. Now the problem, my husband is very fragile right now. He’s trying to be brave and almost hovers a lot of the time but he’s scared to death. I’m feeling fine other than tired, am on infusion chemo as well as oral. My question, finally, is how do I help my husband through this? I did believe that I’d be fine in the end and this is just another journey to take but now I’m guessing, although have not been told outright, that I will die from this disease and fairly soon. My Dr, when I asked for a prognosis, said while looking at his lap, usually 6-10 months although at that time it seemed it hadn’t spread. I chose not to deal w/it then as my husband was right there. He is still right there and goes everywhere with me. I don’t want to shut him out but feel it would be so much easier to get answers if I didn’t have to worry about his reactions/feelings when getting answers. I think this is my biggest problem right now. What do I do?


It is clear that your sweet husband loves you very much. It also seems that he is feeling fearful and powerless regarding the outcomes of this battle with cancer. Generally speaking, men are socialized to have the expectation that they are supposed to fix things. They feel good about themselves when they can fix things, and they feel like a failure when they can’t. As a species overall, humans don’t like to feel powerless, but men seem to be especially uncomfortable is situations where they don’t know what to do to “fix it.”

I suspect that your husband “hovers” because he doesn’t know what else to do, but feels he must do something. What a loyal companion! It may be time to talk with him about what you actually need from him–including some time to yourself. I believe if he knew that giving you that time would be something that was helpful to you, he would be glad to do it–and could do so without feeling guilty for “abandoning” you.

There is also the issue of him being “scared to death,” as you say. It may also be true that he is “scared of death,” specifically your death. The uncertainty of death is ominous to us all, but I think talking about it and facing it will decrease the intimidation factor. There is no need to put on a brave face, but your husband may think there is. If he can see from your example that it is OK to talk about death–as well as life–then he may be able to do the same. Talking about life and death may bring up a host of emotions, but there is nothing wrong with that. It is my belief that all sorts of emotions have an appropriate place in the consideration of the powerful and sacred human experience of life and death.