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Supporting Your Partner Through Cancer


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Many couples today face the challenge of battling cancer together. “Cancer not only affects those diagnosed, but also the partners who love and care for them,” says Robert Miller, MD, radiation oncologist at Wellspring Oncology in Pinellas Park, FL. “Thousands of people are diagnosed with cancer every day, and thousands more step into a new supportive role.”

However, there is no handbook to guide those in taking on this supportive position, leaving many spouses feeling frustrated and confused. “For many people living with cancer, support from their spouse is extremely important in helping them battle the disease,” says Dr. Miller. “Often, however, partners feel unsure of the best way to offer that support. They know that they want to support their spouse, but they just aren’t quite sure how to go about it.”

How, then, does one face this role head-on and help the one they love most in their fight against cancer? Dr. Miller offers some advice to help spouses provide the support their partners need.

Communication Is Key
One of the best ways to offer support to your partner is through communication. Discuss what you are both thinking and feeling on a regular basis, and allow your spouse to talk for as long as he or she needs. Also, encourage your partner to express his or her true feelings, both good and bad. Understanding your spouse’s thoughts and emotions is key to supporting them.

Spend some time together focusing on one another, not cancer.

“It’s so important that a couple communicate with one another during such a difficult time,” says Dr. Miller. “In order to effectively support your partner, you have to know what he or she needs from you. There’s no better way to find out than to ask.”

Dr. Miller also reminds supporting partners that these needs may change often. For those living with cancer, emotions and the needs that come with them can differ from one day to the next, so being in tune with those is essential to providing the best support you can.

Let Them Decide
During this journey, your spouse may have to make some difficult decisions regarding his or her health. Be supportive of these decisions, even if they aren’t the ones you may have made. While the two of you are on this journey together, it’s important to remember that it’s your partner who is living with the disease. Offer your input and discuss your fears, but allow your spouse to decide what he or she thinks is the best choice.

Don’t Forget Yourself
The best way to make sure you have the physical and emotional ability to continue caring for the one you love is by keeping yourself healthy. When your partner is living with cancer, it can be difficult to focus on your own needs. However, it’s important to remember self-care, as well. Taking a moment away will not only allow you time to focus on yourself, it will also make you a better caregiver for your spouse.

“It’s common to spend less time on yourself when you’re caring for a spouse with cancer,” says Dr. Miller, “but if you don’t take care of yourself, it will be much more difficult to care for your partner. Taking time for yourself will be beneficial for both of you.”

So spend a little time on yourself. Take short breaks and do something active, like going for a walk or spending an hour at the gym, and try to maintain a healthy diet, as well. Exercise and eating well may seem like the least of your worries, but it’s important for the well-being of both you and your spouse.

Remember Your Relationship
Even though you’ve taken on this new supportive role, it’s important to remember that you are also a spouse. While your partner may need a caregiver, he or she also needs that relationship that was there before the cancer diagnosis. “It’s easy to get caught up in the caregiver role, but don’t forget to also be a spouse,” says Dr. Miller. “Even during such a difficult time, couples should still continue being couples.”

So spend some time together focusing on one another, not cancer. If your partner is feeling well enough, go out for a date night. Or if your spouse isn’t feeling up to a night out, just enjoy time with one another at home. No matter how you go about it, spend time together as a couple and continue to be a spouse to your partner.

Living with cancer can be one of the most difficult times a couple can face. However, as a partner, you have the ability to give the support, love, and encouragement that your spouse needs the most to battle this disease.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2011.

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