I met Burt the Monday before Labor Day. As I walked into the room, he stood up–a sturdy, fifty-three-year-old guy with a direct, sky-blue gaze. Although he was a little etched around the eyes, he mostly looked the picture of health.
Two years before, he’d had a cancer. It was treated and thought to be gone. But for several weeks now, he’d been having excruciating low-back pain; he rated it a ten out of ten. The day before, a new CT scan had revealed that his original tumor had spread to his liver and bones. A spiderweb of tumor damage in his spine was the cause of his pain.
If I were a layperson or if this were my brother, I’d be hysterical. But I’m a radiation oncologist (a doctor who gives radiation to cancer patients), and this was my patient. I’d seen this kind of thing before, and I felt hopeful that radiation could help.
During our visit, I spoke frankly but moved slowly, trying to both honor the situation and help the fam-ily cope with the nightmare Burt now faced: the near certainty that his lifespan had abruptly been cut to a matter of months; the stark reality that most likely we had no treatments that would change the date of his death. I could only dimly envision the agonized kitchen-table conversations he and his family must be having.
But having spent two decades witnessing radiation’s magical palliative powers, I felt pretty confident that our treatments could help Burt spend his remaining days pain-free. So I told him, “From here on out, it’s all about comfort, it’s about getting rid of the pain, it’s about getting back to spending quality time with your family, doing the things you love.” And I outlined a plan for two weeks of radiation to his spine.
As a breast cancer doctor, I’ve learned how to spot a devoted husband — a skill I try to share with my single and searching girlfriends. “Everything I know about marriage I learned in my cancer clinic.” I’ve been known to say this to my friends, maybe more than once, maybe even causing some of them to grind their teeth and grumble about Robin and Her Infernal Life Lessons.
I can’t help myself. I’ve worked as a breast cancer doctor for 20 years, I’ve watched thousands of cou-ples cope with every conceivable (and sometimes unimaginable) kind of crisis, and I’ve seen all kinds of marriages, including those that rise like a bea-con out of the scorched-earth terror that is a cancer clinic.
It’s a privilege to witness these couples, but the downside is I find myself muttering under my breath when my single female friends show me their ads for online dating. “Must like long walks on beach at sunset, cats,” they write, or “French food, kayaking, travel.” Or a perennial favorite: “Looking for fishing buddy; must be good with bait.” These ads make me want to climb onto my cancer doctor soapbox and proclaim, “Finding friends with fine fishing poles may be great in the short term. But what you really want to look for is somebody who will hold your purse in the cancer clinic.”
It’s one of the biggest take-home lessons from my years as an oncologist: When you’re a single woman picturing the guy of your dreams, what matters a heck of lot more than how he handles a kayak is how he handles things when you’re sick. And one shining example of this is how a guy deals with your purse.
I became acquainted with what I’ve come to call great “purse partners” at a cancer clinic in Waltham. Every day these husbands drove their wives in for their radiation treatments, and every day these couples sat side by side in the waiting room, with-out much fuss and without much chitchat. Each wife, when her name was called, would stand, take a breath, and hand her purse over to her husband. Then she’d disappear into the recesses of the radia-tion room, leaving behind a stony-faced man hold-ing what was typically a white vinyl pocketbook. On his lap. The guy — usually retired from the trades, a grandfather a dozen times over, a Sox fan since date of conception — sat there silently with that purse. He didn’t read, he didn’t talk, he just sat there with the knowledge that 20 feet away technologists were preparing to program an unimaginably complicated X-ray machine and aim it at the mother of his kids.
I’d walk by and catch him staring into space, holding hard onto the pocketbook, his big gnarled knuck-les clamped around the clasp, and think, “What a prince.”
I’ve worked at cancer clinics all around Boston since then, and I’ve seen purse partners from every walk of life, every age and stage. Of course, not every great guy accompanies his wife to her oncology appointment ev-ery day — some husbands are home holding down the fort, or out earning a paycheck and paying the health insurance premiums — but I continue to have a soft spot for the pocketbook guy. Men like him make me want to rewrite dating ads from scratch.
WANTED: A partner for richer or poorer and for bet-ter or worse and absolutely, positively in sickness and in health. A partner for fishing and French food and beach walks and kayak trips, but also for phone calls from physicians with biopsy results. A guy who knows that while much of marriage is a 50-50 give-and-take, sometimes it’s more like 80-20, and that’s OK, even when the 80-20 phase goes on and on. A man who truly doesn’t care what somebody’s breast looks like after cancer surgery, or at least will never reveal that he’s given it a moment’s thought. A guy who’s got some comfort level with secretions and knows the value of a cool, damp washcloth. A partner who knows to remove the computer mouse from a woman’s hand when she types phrases like “breast cancer death sentence” in a Google search. And, most of all, a partner who will sit in a cancer clinic waiting room and hold hard onto the purse on his lap.