Jack Congleton greets me with a warm smile, a welcome sight on an early spring morning that feels more like the middle of winter. Although I’m just meeting Jack – an ABCD Family & Friends Mentor – for the first time, his friendly, gracious nature immediately puts me at ease.
Over the past ten years, Jack has mentored more than a dozen men whose partners have been diagnosed with breast cancer. You might think of him as a pioneer in the co-survivor support arena; at present, he is ABCD’s only male co-mentor.
Jack’s first experience with breast cancer came when he was only five years old. His grandmother, then in her 50s, was diagnosed with the disease and underwent radical surgery to treat it. Witnessing the impact of cancer on a loved one was frightening and disorienting, but fortunately, the surgery was successful. Jack’s grandmother regained her health and lived to be 94 years old.
Facing a Challenge Together, With Optimism
When Jack’s wife, Kathleen, was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in 2004, Jack was able to respond with optimism and relative calm. Recalling his grandmother’s experience helped him counter some of the fear and anxiety surrounding the diagnosis. In facing his wife’s illness, Jack also drew upon skills – like resilience, patience, and adaptability – gained from his longtime career as a special education teacher and theater director for middle and high school students.
As they absorbed the unexpected news, Kathleen and Jack focused on being as proactive and informed as possible. “We both felt from the beginning that we were in this together,” Jack explains. He joined his wife for appointments, took notes as they spoke with caregivers, and researched questions that came up. After surgeons performed a lumpectomy, Jack and Kathleen learned that she would also need chemotherapy and radiation. While disappointed by this development, both Kathleen and Jack faced the situation with a practical and hopeful attitude, and they found their relationship became stronger as treatment progressed over the next several months.
Kathleen’s medical team at Froedtert Hospital soon connected her with an ABCD mentor, and Jack began to learn about the organization as well. As Kathleen’s treatment concluded successfully, she decided to train to become a mentor. Jack relates with a chuckle, “It didn’t take much to convince me to become one, too.”
“I see my mentor role as really to affirm how others are feeling, and acknowledge that this is frightening. It can be very hard for guys to open up,” Jack notes. At one point, he mentored a physician whose wife had been diagnosed. “He understood the medical side of things perfectly. What he needed was just someone to listen to what he was going through,” Jack says.
Jack emphasizes that men play a critical role in the healing process, even though it may be tough to navigate at first. When a loved one is first diagnosed, there might be a flurry of activity around the patient, with friends, relatives, and others becoming involved; sometimes men aren’t sure exactly where they fit within this support network, Jack explains. For this reason, he strives to help his mentees identify what their support might look like in practice. Does it mean helping with children, for example, or managing e-mail updates to the patient’s friends during surgery? It might even involve planning a casual date so the patient can enjoy a welcome break from hospitals and doctors.
What would Jack tell other men who want to support their partners through breast cancer? Remember that your partner is going through something difficult, he suggests, but that she’s not as fragile as you might think. “She’s still a person, and not made out of glass.” Equally critical are having faith in yourself and recognizing the important role you can play in supporting your loved one. “Your instincts are right. Trust them,” he advises.
Written by ABCD Board Member Gina Rich