, Salem, MA

October 16, 2012

In sickness and in health

By Renee Lee / CTW Features
CTW Features

— After Marsha Dale called her husband, Marc Silver, at work to tell him she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, she thought maybe she had reached the wrong husband.

Silver’s first reaction? “Ooh. That doesn’t sound good.” He recalls hanging up after the conversation and staying the day at work.

Silver wasn’t looking to be callous — he didn’t know how else to react. He reacted, he said, by not reacting. This was Labor Day weekend 2001, and it wasn’t until they visited with doctors and Silver heard the word “mastectomy” that he sprung out of denial.

During his wife’s treatment, Silver, an editor at National Geographic, found himself desperately wanting a book that gave advice to breast cancer husbands.

In spring of 2002, as Dale finished up her active treatments toward what had been stage 2 cancer, Silver drafted a book proposal. His book, “Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond” (Rodale Books) was published in September 2004.

Silver’s book tells the story of his family’s battle with cancer, but he also interviewed nearly 100 couples and found that everyone coped with breast cancer differently.

“You’re in a daze,” Silver says. “You get hit so hard and sometimes you don’t know why you’re reacting the way you are.”

Silver recalls the first time he cried after his wife was diagnosed.

“I was driving around doing errands and listening to Ray Charles. All of a sudden I heard these strange sounds in the car and I was like, oh my God, I’m crying.” Silver says. “I remember I didn’t tell my wife about it — I was afraid she’d think ‘Whoa, he’s losin’ it.’”

When dealing with cancer, you can feel like all the humor flies out of your life, Silver says. Hair was a sensitive issue for Dale once she started losing it, but the couple found a way to sneak in some humor when it came to wigs.

“We were at the wig shop, and I said, ‘Honey, will you try on some for me?’” What ensued was a dress-up session of Dale modeling a big blonde Dolly Parton-style wig and one that made her look like Elvira from the 1988 film “Mistress of the Dark.”

Silver and his wife found it was a lot easier to laugh at cancer than to constantly be afraid of it.

Silver and his wife have been together now for more than 30 years. Dale was able to share any thoughts, whether good or bad, with her husband. As Silver says, if she couldn’t share them with him, whom could she share them with?

Being a caregiver to a sick loved one comes with its own burden. Silver recommends caregivers also take some time off to take care of themselves. Silver talked to some wives who said they would call their husbands’ friends and ask them to go out with him to make sure he was getting time for himself as well.

Other advice Silver has for caretakers? Take all the help you are offered from friends and family. It’s also very important to go to doctor’s appointments with your wife, Silver says. You become part of a team, and you can listen and help discuss treatment options.

Dale eventually had lumpectomies in both breasts and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. At the end of treatment, Silver says his wife, a high school teacher, gave him a “solid B” for his efforts as a breast cancer husband.

“She gave me a B, but she’s a tough grader, so I have no complaints,” Silver says.