By MATT KOESTERS
NEW ALBANY —
Doug Drake was in his mid-30s when his life was touched by breast cancer for the first time. It was 1990 when his mother was diagnosed with the disease, and Drake and his father both reacted with what he described as a typical male response.
“You're scared to death and you don't want to admit it,” Drake said. “You don't want to talk about it. My dad and I did the same thing. We just worked extra hard at our jobs so that we didn't have to think about it or deal with it.”
Drake wouldn't even call himself and his father caregivers during his mother's struggle. Then, in May of 1990, that struggle ended.
Drake, a man of faith, promised God that if he ever had another chance to take care of a loved one with breast cancer, he'd do things the right way.
It didn't take long for Drake to get his chance. Ten years later and just nine months after walking down the aisle with his wife, Janet, the Drakes learned she had breast cancer.
“I kind of thought, 'OK, I'll take it. There's the test,'” Doug Drake recalled.
He rose to the challenge, learning about the methodology, the treatments, the drugs and the surgeries that would become a part of the Drakes' lives as Janet battled the disease. He did his best to accompany his wife to every appointment and treatment.
“There were days when I had good days, and there were days when I had really bad days from chemo or radiation,” Janet said.
She said it was helpful having her husband with her.
“He would make sure I had everything I needed for the day before he left for work,” Janet said. “I don't think I could have done it all if I didn't have somebody as supportive as Doug was.”
Although Janet has been cancer free for more than a decade, Doug's work isn't over. Doug is one of the founding members of Together for Breast Cancer Survival, a men's caregiver support group that meets twice per month.
Doug and members of the Together group provide support to men whose significant others are battling breast cancer. Together is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a board of directors consisting of former male caregivers.
The path to recovery for the Drakes went through a breast-cancer support group for women at Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services in New Albany. Doug agreed to go after Janet insisted. The women in the group accepted Doug with open arms, he said.
There were a few moments when the conversation went places that made Doug's face turn red, but he was never asked to leave the room as the women shared their experiences.
“They just really, really insisted - and they weren't joking - that I needed to start a group that would support men whose wives or significant others were going through breast cancer,” Doug said. It had become obvious that while there were plenty of resources for women, men were left to their own devices.
Janet's oncology nurse, Cindy Cooper, introduced Doug to another couple in a similar situation.
“And she kept telling me about him and said, 'He could really use the support, and you guys could support each other and you could talk about that journey together, rather than walking behind her or walking in front of her,'” Doug said.
That was the beginning of the group. The first meeting included Doug, Cooper and three other men in December 2001. Together has been together ever since.
“I knew they were clicking when this one guy said to the other guy, 'You know, I thought that my wife, when she was bald, was really sexy,'” Cooper said. “And the other guy said, 'Me too.' And it occurred to me that I don't think like that . . . there was a bond there when those guys were talking about what they had gone through.”
The group draws anywhere from eight to 20 attendees per session, Doug said. The men come from a variety of backgrounds and situations. Some have just learned their significant others have breast cancer. Others are in the middle of the fight, while still others have already seen the cancer through to the end, whether their story is happy or sad.
For Irvington, Ky., resident Larry Maze, the story is happy. Maze met his fiancee, Lisa Mitchell, more than three years ago. Mitchell was diagnosed with breast cancer just four months into their relationship. Maze started going to Together meetings shortly after the diagnosis. After overcoming some first-time jitters, Maze settled in.
“I guess I was a little uncomfortable,” Maze said. “It was all new for me.”
Shortly into the meeting, Maze began to share his thoughts. He said the group was sympathetic to his feelings.
“They all just kind of grew on me at that point,” he said.
After reconstructive surgery on both of her breasts, Mitchell is in remission. Even though Mitchell is through the woods, Maze still makes the 50-mile trek to attend Together meetings. He hopes to pass on what he's learned about caring for a loved one.
“And that's the main thing, just staying in there and being a 100 percent caregiver to the ones you love,” he said.
Obviously, not every story has a happy ending.
“One of the hard parts is ... when someone in the group loses their spouse,” Cooper said. “It's hard because that's what everyone's worst fear is, reoccurrence and it coming back,” She said. “And it has with members of that group.”
Cooper no longer works as an oncology nurse, but she still works in the medical field as an end-of-life nurse, and she still makes the occasional meeting.
Now men like Doug and Maze are the driving force behind Together. But when it comes to getting new members to participate, Janet is happy to tell women why their husbands should give it a try.
Occasionally she'll get calls from wives who say their husbands don't know what to do.
“I tell them about the group and I tell them that it's only for the males,” Janet Drake said. “They're there and they can speak about issues they may be having themselves in trying to be a caregiver, or issues concerning their wives, if they're having an issue. I let them know about it.”