My Wife Has Cancer. Now What?

One day you’re relaxing poolside on vacation with your wife, the next day, bam! Your wife has cancer, and you’re now her caretaker.

This is what happened to me and my wife, Alicia when she was diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL). As the husband, you have about 20 seconds to be in shock. Then you better snap out of it because there’s a lot of work to do. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have no clue where to start.

I don’t have the answers, and I’m not an expert, so this is not advice. I do share my experiences, which is what my series, My Wife Has Cancer! Now, What? is all about. Here, I start with the typical male “fix it” response. In a future piece, I’ll focus on the emotional game. But most men cannot focus on emotions if they haven’t fixed something first.

The quicker you can bring some order to that chaos, the more likely you can manage enough of it to stay sane and strong, which is what your wife needs from you.

Professionally, I run political campaigns and provide crisis communication consulting for my clients. Who knew these skills would be invaluable to me as I co-manage this family crisis. Below are big-picture steps you should consider taking sooner rather than later to manage your cancer crisis.

Create a decision-making structure and process.

Immediately you and your wife will have to make dozens of decisions, some with enormous consequences, very quickly. You cannot do this effectively unless you have a process for analyzing and discussing the issues, making the decision, and finally, implementing the decision. Don’t go with your gut, and don’t twiddle your thumbs. There’s no IQ test for your gut, and no decision is almost always a poor decision.

Establish how a decision is made. For me, it’s my wife’s body; therefore, it’s her ultimate call. However, no different than when I served as an advisor to a mayor, on the big decisions, we talk them through. Create a regular time to discuss the major decisions you face. Avoid making those decisions on the spot. Talk to others with similar experiences and do research. Be an informational asset to your wife — not just an opinion holder. Think beyond step one. Many health decisions have impacts down the line that you cannot easily see in the present. Game those out together or “what if” the problem for a while.

Once a decision is made, back it up. Maybe your wife sides against you. Tough luck, big boy. Welcome to the NFL. Your job is to implement her call as best as you can and never undercut her in front of anyone. Doing so earns you Class 1A douche status. If her decision doesn’t pan out, you can then look to implement your recommendation with grace. It’s her life, not a board game.

Create communication infrastructure ASAP.

“Time is money” is the adage in the business world. In the cancer world, time is sanity. My wife and I were overwhelmed with the number of phone calls and messages we received after announcing her diagnosis.

Each phone call you take will cost you (yes, lost time is a cost) at least twenty minutes. Take five calls, and you’ve burnt more than an hour and a half. Worse, those five calls will all be the exact same conversation, and you will relive how much life sucks right now five times. Add your wife to the formula, and you’ve blown three hours, and you’ll both be emotionally exhausted.

While the connection with people is essential, the time and emotional suck are deadly.

A safe bet is that you’ll need to communicate with a hundred people or more once you count friends, extended family and that Facebook friend you can’t remember going to high school with. Imagine briefing 100 people. Now imagine doing it every week.

To reclaim our time and sanity, we created an e-newsletter that covers everything we want people to know: updates on the medical issues Alicia faces, an educational component about the disease, a message from Alicia, and one from me (caretakers have a constituency too!). We use MailChimp and add photos so it’s visually appealing. MailChimp also creates a textable link for the newsletter that we can send to anyone who asks questions. Whether friends or family, when they ask questions, we send them the link and tell them to subscribe.

Create a budget.

My biggest surprise on prepping for my wife’s cancer treatment is the cost. Forget medical insurance; that’s too complicated. I mean out-of-pocket costs.

My wife’s chemotherapy effectively called for taking someone with a severely suppressed immune system and then nuking it. With no immune system, HCL patients cannot get sick. That means buying your weight in cleaning supplies for multiple rooms. Did you know that when you’re undergoing chemo, all your bodily fluids are toxic? Gross, but cha-ching. More cleaning products.

Chemo wipes out the patient’s will to get out of bed. We broke our marital deal of no TV in the bedroom to accommodate this fact. Our house has no air conditioning (coastal home). We got a ceiling fan because chemo patients struggle to regulate their body temp. Eye shields to help them sleep, blankets to keep them warm, breathable pajamas to keep them cool, vitamin supplements, the laptop tray for bed, the list goes on.

The big kicker? Food. You better prepare to be one of Doordash’s top customers and have your groceries delivered. Life is going to be very unpredictable. Grocery shopping will be as hard to plan as the romantic weekend getaway you two could never pull off.

We easily spent over $4,000 in expenses in the first two months, and that doesn’t count the billion doctor and lab trips you have to make at $5/gallon in California.

This is not an exhaustive list of what you need to do to successfully manage this crisis. Your life, however, is going to be thrown into chaos. The quicker you can bring some order to that chaos, the more likely you can manage enough of it to stay sane and strong, which is what your wife needs from you.

The great thing about processes is that they help you manage during extreme emotion. Create a system to make decisions, communicate what’s happening, and pay for it all. You will not regret it.

This post was previously published on


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