Man Who Rarely Cries, Cries

Unpicking the mess of emotions that brought me to tears

Cancer Husband
Human Parts
6 min readFeb 5, 2024


Image adapted from original by Charlotte Knight on Unsplash

Today I was overtaken by tears. I was sat in the home office we’ve set up in our garden, playing sad music, absently clicking and searching, until I whipped up a perfect storm of my own emotions and was suddenly crying with a force I couldn’t control. I could only surrender, falling forward with my head on the desk, crying tears that pooled around my nose.

I don’t have any of that “men don’t cry” baggage, and if something sad happens I may well cry. But still, I rarely do cry, and this was different because it felt spontaneous.

So why am I crying like this? First, the big picture. My 39-year-old wife was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in July last year. She had a mastectomy and began hormone-suppressing meds in August. Then in September she started an intensive course of chemotherapy, with eight cycles separated by only two weeks. The last cycle is tomorrow, then she gets a break before this whole nightmare is topped off by radiotherapy. Her hair is important to her appearance, and to how she feels.

Today she’s lost all of her body hair and perhaps half of the hair on her head. She looks like what she is: a chemo patient, and it’s shocking for me to see. Worse, it’s shocking for our two young children to see. Perhaps this is strange, but I feel her beauty is untouched. She’s been under attack, first from cancer and then from the treatment, but she remains my uncommonly gorgeous wife — the woman I somehow managed to win over, 16 years ago.

Now chemo is coming to an end, and at some point soon they’ll send her off into the sunset, technically cured but with a new and existential fear: that the next time cancer comes calling it will be all over her body before we find it.

It’s been 14 weeks or so of chemo so far, and in that time we’ve hugely narrowed our lives — hunkering down, rarely going out, and directing our energies towards supporting each other. Both of our kids play football, for school teams and local clubs, and so we’ve been to endless training sessions and matches, but little else. The kids do seem to be coping OK. Our eldest has her first boyfriend — a 12-year-old boy with a talent for one-word WhatsApp messages — and that takes up most of her emotional energies. Our youngest is more vulnerable, attaching himself to me for reasons that are both obvious and heartbreaking.

And how am I doing? The ambush of tears just now would suggest I’m not doing very well. People sometimes ask — tentatively — how are you doing? I tend to answer with something like: “I’m holding things together, I have my roles to perform, I’m focused on my wife and the kids,” and I know even as I speak that I’m being evasive. I’m not actively hiding anything, I’m just avoiding the introspection needed to tell people how I’m feeling, so instead I tell people what I’m doing.

At the start of October I left my job, so I could focus on taking my wife to all her appointments and keep the home fires burning. The idea was always to try and get back to work in February, which is when our financial buffer starts to feel thin. I left a job that was the best paying in my career — at a huge company that you’ve heard of — but it wasn’t a catastrophe. I’d only been there 9 months and I already knew the job was in the No-Man’s Land of “not terrible, not great.” Now I’m back on the job market, with a newly polished CV and a sad story to describe this mysterious career break. I work in technology marketing, and I’ve always found it relatively easy to find jobs, but so far it’s been going badly. I’ve been rejected even for interview for several jobs that I’d expect to have a fighting chance of securing. I can’t yet tell if this is because the jobs market is very tough right now, or if my CV and cover letters are weak, or both. I’m not really used to professional rejection like this. The rejection emails, with their bland talk of “we appreciate the time” and “please consider us for future opportunities” are strangely painful.

Rejection author’s own.

Applying through LinkedIn means I get to see how many others are applying for any given role. It can be 10, 50, or even more than 100 applications. I often wonder if I’m being rejected, at least in part, because my wife is sick, and that brings with it the risk I’ll need time off. I’m a candidate with rough edges, in a smooth and fast-flowing river of viable applications. And I’m making things worse for myself: I widened the range of roles I’m applying for, making some speculative applications for roles I know are a reach. I’m learning that this just increases the number of rejection emails, rather than the number of interviews.

I can only think of once before when I’ve been ambushed by tears. I had a brief and ill-conceived marriage in my 20s. I married the college girlfriend I should have given up along with the weed smoking. I was totally committed to the marriage, so when she cheated on me I was shocked and hurt. She later got together with the man she’d had the affair with, and introduced him into my social group, which meant I felt forced to leave that whole group of friends.

I took all of this badly, ending up in The Priory Hospital, a drying-out and depression-treating place that takes in minor and major celebs, and me. Just before going into hospital, right when my crumbling became unhideable, I remember breaking down in tears while standing alone in my kitchen. That was the first time I was ambushed by tears without any cause in that moment. The second time was today.

Or perhaps there was an immediate trigger for the tears. I’d just read that the singer Melanie died last week, so I listened to her song “Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma”. I was immediately transported back to my 20s, and to my ex-wife who loved this song. I was softened up.

Then an unfortunate algorithmic accident played “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and I felt a sudden swirl of emotions. My mum loves Simon and Garfunkel and played them loudly through the house when I was small. Now please excuse a name drop: Simon and Garfunkel always bring me back to a friend of mine, the only famous friend I ever had, Carrie Fisher. I met her in rehab and we stayed friends for the decade or so after that, until she died a few years back. When Paul Simon arrives in Art Garfunkel’s masterpiece vocal, singing “sail on silver girl,” I always thought he was singing of dear, troubled Carrie. It’s utterly sad.

Please trust me that some things are too good to look up. I just checked that the line was written for Carrie, and it turns out that it was written about his then-wife Peggy Harper. But my emotions were real enough, before Google helped me wriggle free. Perhaps my wife saw me there in the office, with my forehead on the desk and lost to tears. I mean that literally: We’ve put those Ring cameras in several rooms around our house, including in the office, so she may have watched my silent, heaving shoulders.

Or, more likely, she just guessed I needed her. Either way, she came in a few minutes ago with a cup of tea and this kind note, hidden beneath the mug. See? I told you I was lucky to have her.

Image author’s own.

I didn’t tell her I’d been crying, but I guess she knew. She gave me exactly what I needed: a hug and a reminder that we’re in this together.