Being a Partner to Someone with Cancer

January 18, 2021 Julia Inderbitzin, Health Education Intern

“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…” Most married couples may have exchanged these vows on their wedding day. Marriage and relationships can already be difficult with challenges and obstacles of everyday life to overcome, let alone a battle with cancer thrown into the mix. Cancer, although challenging, can even strengthen relationships and bring couples closer when dealt with together. If your partner has cancer, there are things you can do to help and provide support. It may be a difficult time for both of you as cancer presents new and unique challenges on a relationship, but helping to ease the impacts of cancer together can positively improve both of your lives.

“No relationship is all sunshine, but two people can share one umbrella and survive the storm together.”

-Unknown

Communication

Cancer presents many new concerns for couples to communicate about. Diagnosis, treatment plans, finding resources, finances, and changes in intimacy and sex are just a few topics that are often discussed. These topics are challenging to discuss and can involve intense emotions. Navigating a cancer diagnosis creates an opportunity to have these tough conversations. It is important to know that good communication does not come naturally or easily and takes a lot of practice and effort. Consider using some of the following tips to practice good communication with your partner as recommended by the American Society of Clinical Oncology:

  • Do not interrupt or rush the conversation.
  • Practice active listening. Try to focus on what your partner is saying and repeat what they have said in your own words or ask for feedback to better understand their point of view.
  • Be specific and clear.
  • Do not assume you know what your spouse is thinking, feeling, or what they will say next.
  • Ask questions for more clarity.
  • Focus on a single topic at a time.
  • Do not always expect to resolve a difficult topic in one sitting.
  • The conversation does not always have to be about cancer so talk about other topics you would usually discuss.
  • Do not be afraid to laugh; humor may help provide a method of coping for you and your partner.

One of the most important things to remember when communicating with your partner who has cancer is to try and avoid the phrase “I know how you feel.” It may feel natural to say, but this small phrase frustrate rather than comfort your partner. Instead, try using phrases like “I care about you,” “I’m thinking of you,” or “If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.”

Sex & Intimacy

Physical and emotional closeness are important parts of a healthy relationship. Cancer can affect the intimate side of a relationship, but it is important to remember that while sex is a powerful expression of love and affection, it is not the only one. Holding hands, special looks, hugging, kissing, etc. are valuable ways to maintain sexuality in your relationship. Finding intimacy in other ways with your partner may also be necessary and can be achieved by offering physical closeness or touching, as well as kindness, affection and respect towards your partner.

More Tips & Information

Generally, it is very helpful if you learn as much as you can about your partner’s cancer so you can better understand their diagnosis and treatment and be able to ask questions to their care team. News of your partner’s cancer is likely overwhelming for you also, so try to find ways to manage your stress. The American Cancer Society suggest staying busy, learning something new, or finding activities such as music, crafts, and reading may help you feel better.' Try to remember that your partner’s cancer is just a part of your life together and that finding the “new normal” may be challenging, but experiencing challenges is normal. It is also very important to realize that doing your best is good enough.

 

Resources

For more information about cancer and supporting your partner, follow the links below or contact your SCI oncology social worker at 206-386-3228 or contact the Cancer Education Center at 206-386-3200.

Swedish Cancer Education Center Website: https://www.swedish.org/services/cancer-institute/patient-support-resources/cancer-education-center

American Cancer Society—How Cancer Affects Sexuality: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fertility-and-sexual-side-effects/how-cancer-affects-sexuality.html

Cancer.Net—Talking With Your Spouse or Partner about Cancer: https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/talking-about-cancer/talking-with-your-spouse-or-partner-about-cancer

National Cancer Institute—Feelings and Cancer: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings

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