don kerr

4 years ago · 3 min. reading time · visibility 0 ·

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You can't fix it but you can make it better

You can't fix it but you can make it better

On November 3, 2011, I received a phone call while waiting in line to pick up my sons, 2 and 4, from school. On the other end of the line was my wife’s GP advising me that Kate had a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. The ensuing months brought bewilderment, fear and anger. I struggled to find a way to express what was happening to our family and to provide care.

There is very little support in the breast cancer community for male caregivers. I looked for it. Didn’t find it. Ended up writing it. During the entire experience I wrote a blog which culminated in my book Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for.

I wrote it in the hope that if even a few guys in my position found some helpful advice it would be worthwhile. And, given that we men need things made as simple as possible I wrote it very much as a user’s guide - short, practical, actionable and approachable. One of the outcomes was this list of the top five + one tips.

Clearly, the book provides more depth to each of these points and other material as well, but for the purposes of this blog perhaps a condensed version will provide a few nuggets of useful information for those of you riding in the shotgun seat.

  • Decide to show up and acknowledge that you cannot ‘fix it’. When cancer enters your life by striking your partner, you have a choice. Your partner does not. You can choose to confront the adversity or turn tail. You can acknowledge that the fundamental genetic flaw within most men to ‘fix it’ does not apply in the cancer world and accept the reality by adapting to a new way of life of caring, supporting and listening.
  • Admit you can’t possibly understand what your partner is experiencing. Ask her to teach you. The very first time you’re tempted to comment “I know how you feel” stifle yourself. Stuff a cracker in your mouth or go for a walk or hide your head under a pillow. You DO NOT know how your partner feels. But you can be empathetic and ask her to explain. Ask her what she needs. Ask her how you can help. Ask her to teach you. And listen, listen, and listen some more. Sometimes that’s all she wants.
  • Become the record keeper and communications officer with all communities. Understand or develop the understanding that you must advocate for your partner with all communities with whom you must interact. You’re about to enter a world of unfamiliar jargon, medical terminology, acronyms and appointments out the wazoo. It is your job to keep track of everything. Get a journal, use an iPad - whatever. Keep track of everything and very importantly, if you don’t understand something keep asking until you do. Don’t expect your partner to absorb all of the details while she’s still wondering if she will live.
  • Grow a VERY thick skin. You will be shocked by the apparent insensitivity of people. Even those who at the outset seemed so solicitous. Know that this a natural part of your cancer trek and that people experience what I call “caring fatigue syndrome.” You need to grow the thick skin for at least two reasons - unless your partner is very unusual you will become her target for the outpouring of all of the anger and frustration she is feeling. It will at times seem unfair. My only advice here is this - suck it up buttercup. Additionally, you will encounter people, who from fear and/or lack of knowledge, will say the most incredibly insensitive things. You may be tempted to slam them. While that might temporarily feel great it will have no long term benefit. Again, try to help them understand and if they appear unable cut them loose. You need only good people around you now.
  • Learn how to practice self care while accepting any and all offers of help. On an airplane you are advised that in the event of depressurization to put your oxygen mask on first then help others. Same principle applies here. If you’re sucking for air you’re not going to be much help to your partner so find people who can give you a little relief by cooking a meal, cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, or just going for a friendly beer.
  • Bonus: Forgive yourself your mistakes. When you blow up one of these five tips (and you will) let it go. Move on and remember this quote from Horace, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”

Published by Full Circle Publishing the Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for is available is available on Amazon in digital and print version and at Full Circle Publishing (print only).

You can also follow the our experience at

© Copyright 2017, Don Kerr, Don Kerr Writes - All rights reserved.

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don kerr

4 years ago #21

We were at my mother's 100th birthday. Kate's hair was just starting to grow after chemo. A cousin commented "I love your haircut. I wish I could be brave enough to cut it so short." By this time we could giggle about it but some folks just don't have a clue so forgiving becomes critical. Ren\u00e9e \ud83d\udc1d Cormier#23

Renée 🐝 Cormier

4 years ago #20

I once dated a man who was going through cancer treatments. People would ask me where his cancer was, as though they could offer some solution or confirm that the prognosis was either good or horrible. I used to want to slap them. Where, is really nobody's business. I know people mean well, but I think I know what you mean when you say you need to develop a thick skin. It was the same when my sister died. She committed suicide so having people ask me how she died felt like an invasion of her privacy. After a while, I just started bluntly telling people the truth so that they could see how horrible a question that really is. I always try to mind my own business. I figure people will tell you whatever they want you to know. Who am I to pry?

Ian Weinberg

4 years ago #19

Profound and courageous Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr a real value contribution. I fear however that I would get caught up somewhere between the personal and the professional 'science' of it all and end up making a real hash of it. Real paradoxical that us in the profession have to numb our emotional responses to get through all that pain and suffering and then probably have to dig deep to find it again in our personal space, if confronted with a dire medical diagnosis in those closest to us.

don kerr

4 years ago #18

you are most welcome

I was moved by this buzz and used it as an example in my buzz "Coexisting Minds and Experiences" Thank you Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr for the inspiration

don kerr

4 years ago #16

Thanks Jim Murray. You're right - we just kick out the jams and carry on carryin' on.

Jim Murray

4 years ago #15

Your headline says it all. Very moving piece, my friend. Like sucks sometimes. But it's the only life we have, so we just put our heads down and make the best of itl BTW: Blondie and I will figure out a time, Next week is pooched. But the week after should be good. Maybe we could do it on Friday when we have all said screw it for the week.

don kerr

4 years ago #14

Shelley Brown thanksk you so much for sharing the difficult reality that illness can bring upon a family

don kerr

4 years ago #13

Joyce \ud83d\udc1d Bowen Brand Ambassador @ beBee It came as a shock to me but the divorce rate is high.

I remember the wonderful interview you shared with us. You validated my view that people turn tale on a spouse probably because the marriage was already in trouble. My nephew, a lawyer, told me of a case once where a woman undergoing chemo was entangled in divorce proceedings. What a dilemma, I thought. Kudos to you on your strong marriage and caring posture.

Charlene Norman

4 years ago #11

I have bugged him a few times Don. Honest. I am game. However, I have also kept him busy (as he likes to complain.) I will bug him again tomorrow morning. I am running over to his place before 10 in the morning. He might be grumpy. Best time to hit him up. And all next week. You have my word.

don kerr

4 years ago #10

Charlene Norman You are very kind and there is, as I say, beauty to be found in the wreckage. My wife refers to the entire experience as "a gift wrapped in barbed wire" On another note, are you and that bald-headed partner of yours ever going to agree to a coffee in Port Dalhousie some day?

Charlene Norman

4 years ago #9

Mighty fine buzz Sir Don. And I love Ali's first line as well. I will only add (as a caregiver but not of the cancer variety) that you and I were given a gift. It sure as hell did not feel like it at the time. But it was and continues to be a gift that not many get. Strength, resilience, a dark sense of humour and a huge capacity to love should never be overlooked. By anyone. High fives Sir Don. There are many that salute you.

don kerr

4 years ago #8

Good point Dominique \ud83d\udc1d Petersen Thanks for the observation.

don kerr

4 years ago #7

Many thanks.

don kerr

4 years ago #6

Thank you Ali

don kerr

4 years ago #5

Much appreciated debasish majumder

don kerr

4 years ago #4

Thanks Pascal Derrien Love that I can always count on you!

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #3

Powerfully eloquent :-)

c"aring fatigue syndrome"- only people who suffered and felt the fatigue shall be able to disclose this syndrome. Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr- from the struggle comes out experience and you did very well from your suffering. What adds to it is that people volunteering information that isn't. I feel what you went through and all your points ar valuable for us to take care of

Dominique 🐝 Petersen

4 years ago #1

Advice right on the mark—for ANYone with a loved one diagnosed with cancer.

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