Every October, the flood of pink ribbons and information about breast cancer can mean only one thing: Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
We hear about the 200,000 women who fight breast cancer every year, and we honor those who lost the fight.
What we don’t hear about are the men standing behind those women, who are just as affected by their cancer diagnoses.
Marc Heyison was one of those guys. In 1992, when he was 29, he heard what he calls the five most horrific words he had ever heard: “Your mother has breast cancer.”
Heyison is 47 now, but he still feels the agony of that day. He remembers that he felt like a little boy, scared that his mother, Gloria, was going to die. His family rallied around the woman who was “their foundation,” and they braced for the scariest ride of their life, doing all they could to be there for her.
“One of us was always there for my mom’s treatment appointments, and I thought that was the norm," Heyison told FoxNews.com. "But when I saw women there by themselves, I couldn’t understand that.”
Heyison’s experience taught him how tough it was to provide the right kind of support for his mother. Seven years later, he started Men Against Breast Cancer (MABC), a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate men on their responsibilities as caregivers. Soon after, MABC became the first organization of its kind to receive a $1.1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control.
“Men are incredible caregivers when given the opportunity. But they are underserved in education about support,” he said.
Since starting MABC, Heyison said he has been overwhelmed by the number of men who show a need for support for themselves, that they unfortunately find is not addressed in other places.
“It’s bittersweet, because I am proud of what we have accomplished, but there should be a thousand organizations like us, it should be the norm,” he said.
Dr. Cynara Coomer, Fox Medical A-Team member and chief of breast surgery at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City, told FoxNews.com that a spouse or partner’s support is crucial to a smooth recovery from breast cancer.
“Just as it is for the woman, it can be overwhelming for the partner to get diagnosed with cancer; and in addition to that have it be such an emotional decision in what kind of treatment to have,” Coomer said.
Coomer encourages counseling for her patients’ partners, especially if the treatment option includes a mastectomy, which she said can hurt a woman’s self-esteem.
Chris Wrobel, of Prior Lake, Minn., found out firsthand how important his support was when his wife, Kaylynn, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer five years ago during a baseline mammogram.
Wrobel, 44, feeling shocked and lost, tried to find the help he needed for himself, and found the majority of the information was for patients, not the caregiver.
“At the clinic she went to, they said, ‘Here is some information,' and it was a tri-fold paper that said what to expect, and to be supportive," he recalled. "Well that’s not really enough. You need more than that. I tried to get help, but there was nothing there to go to.”
Kaylynn found out about MABC and told her husband he needed help dealing with her illness. He made the call, and five years later, he is on the board of directors.
“I felt like, I’m not by myself. All of these guys are in the exact same boat. We are all in this position together,” he said.
Wrobel met with other men who could relate to how he was feeling and could discuss the right things to do in the toughest situations.
“What destroyed me the most was the first day of chemo; holding her hand, saying, ‘Honey I love you, we are in this together,’ and knowing they were pumping her full of poison to kill the bad stuff, and that it was killing the good stuff too,” he said.
Wrobel and his wife made it through the chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Now, he said, he wants to help other men realize that in order to help their loved ones, they need to help themselves.
“It’s frustrating that I have to watch my fellow man go through what I have gone through and not have help. People haven’t caught on. After it’s over, it’s not the same life you had before, it is different,” he said.
A common theme that both experts and men who have gone through cancer with a loved one can agree on is that generally, when men see a problem, they tend to feel like they can fix it. This is an issue when faced with supporting a breast cancer patient, where the caregiver must stand by them and let the treatments do the work.
Ask any breast cancer survivor, and they will tell you that their doctors scare the daylights out of them, but they are their lifeline, and give them hope.
In addition to regular checkups from a primary care physician, women generally see a breast surgeon, a radiation oncologist, and a medical oncologist. From that bare minimum of four doctors, there usually comes a second opinion from other specialists. Many women end up consulting with as many as 10 doctors—and that means a lot of appointments and even more scheduling issues.
“We teach men that they can be good about getting tasks accomplished — taking notes at the doctor’s office and making appointments, so she can concentrate on her treatment,” Heyison said.
Coomer said in her experience, one of the most important things a man can do to support a woman during breast cancer treatments is to make her feel beautiful.
“Remind her you love her for who she is and not what she looks like,” she said.
MABC addresses all different aspects of support for men, from sexual intimacy, to fear of death, and even when to just get out of the way.
“You don’t want to baby her. If she wants to cook dinner, you’ve got to get the hell out of the kitchen. It gives her a sense of power and normalcy,” Heyison said.
Overall, women need to know that men feel fear and helplessness, and are afraid they are going to die; it makes them feel connected to the person they love.
“A big step is just admitting the fact that strength isn’t necessarily making a muscle, but just telling her that you are scared,” Heyison said.
Russell Cooks found his strength when he learned that his ex-wife Celena was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. He said he knew it was God’s plan for him to step up and support her.
Although they were no longer together, Russell traveled 80 miles each way, every day, to her home in Atlanta to take care of Celena and their three children.
“The most difficult part was that she was in a place psychologically where she was not feeling like a whole person, not feeling as pretty; feeling like a part of her was gone,” Cooks said. “I went to MABC, and it helped me to be able to deal with that.”
At the end of her treatment, Cooks’ wife underwent a bilateral mastectomy, and he never left. Five months later, they remarried. Now Cooks, also a MABC board member, calls their fight against breast cancer a “family crusade.”
“For men, there is no way to avoid the fight; you are going to be part of it no matter what. The sooner we get involved, the better results we are going to have, and give women the support system they need,” he said.
Click here to learn more about Men Against Breast Cancer.