Help for Relationships Challenged by Cancer

by Karen Kayser, MSW, PhD

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Going through treatment for cancer can be a lonely experience. Those close to you may not seem to understand what you are feeling. But the stress and uncertainty of your cancer is often felt and shared by your partner.

People who are coping with cancer do not always recognize that the experience can be just as scary and stressful for their partners. This may be because the partner isn’t sharing his or her feelings. Couples facing cancer may be afraid of burdening each other, often referred to as a “conspiracy of silence.” A series of studies have found that the mood of one partner affects the mood of the other. Feelings of hopelessness and emotional distress can be transferred from one person to the other. On the other hand, optimism and a positive attitude can just as easily be transferred.

Partners who are both engaged in tackling cancer together – who communicate their feelings and work together in facing the disease – tend to experience a higher level of adjustment to their situation and a greater sense of well-being. You can face cancer and still keep your relationship intact.

Find balance among work, family responsibilities, and self-care.
When couples are initially confronted with the cancer diagnosis, they may try to carry on their work and family responsibilities as usual. This is a mistake. With medical appointments, recovery, and weeks of daily clinical visits, the experience can quickly become overwhelming. Figuring out how to incorporate these additional demands into an already busy schedule is not easy. Therefore, it’s important to have regular conversations about how to divide up household chores and whether extra help is needed.

Accept that the two of you may have different styles of coping.
There are two primary ways of coping with distress: talking through problems, and taking action to solve the problem. There is no right or wrong way to deal with stressful situations. Partners need to try to understand each other’s coping styles and not be critical if the other person’s method of coping is different from their own.

When couples are initially confronted with the cancer diagnosis, they may try to carry on as usual. This is a mistake.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Karen Kayser

Communicate with each other.
Many partners are afraid to show their feelings for fear of distressing the other person. Yet verbal and nonverbal communication is the vehicle by which we demonstrate support, care, and concern. It’s important to create an environment in which each of you can openly express your thoughts and emotions. To do this, you each must learn to respond to the other person’s emotional expression in a positive way. This positive reinforcement makes it easier to share concerns, which in turn can reduce stress and ultimately lead to a strengthened relationship.

Make room for physical intimacy in your relationship.
Although concerns related to body image, physical intimacy, and sexual performance are common among people undergoing cancer treatment, many people avoid discussing these issues with their partners and their healthcare providers. Myths and misinformation surrounding sex and cancer frequently become barriers to physical closeness. Consequently, couples may unnecessarily abstain from all forms of physical contact and sexual expression. However, sexual intimacy can provide an important means of coping with the distress caused by cancer. It can reaffirm a couple’s vitality and bring a reassuring sense of normalcy.

Although a cancer diagnosis can bring about feelings of loss, hopelessness, and vulnerability, it also presents an opportunity for growth. A recent Canadian study of couples coping with breast cancer found that almost half the couples felt that cancer had brought them closer together. The husbands in the study reported more physical and emotional engagement with their wives during the illness experience. The men said they looked to their wives and followed their lead on how to cope with the situation. They were active in providing support during treatments (such as accompanying their wives to medical appointments), and their wives reported that their husbands showed them more physical affection.

Facing cancer together, communicating with each other, providing emotional support, and incorporating intimacy into your relationship can transform an otherwise painful experience into a meaningful one in which each person grows through his or her connection with the other.

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Note: Dr. Karen Kayser is a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. She has extensive research and clinical experience with families coping with cancer. She has published several books on marriage and cancer, including Helping Couples Cope with Women’s Cancer (2008, with Jennifer Scott, published by NY: Springer).

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.