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Confronting Cancer as a Couple

by Sandra Bernstein, MSN, RN, CS, LMFT

Wellness image

(Photo by Blend Images /

No one plans for cancer. It drops in suddenly, affecting not only your life but also the lives of everyone who cares about you, especially your spouse or partner. While each couple’s experience is unique, it’s com­mon for the predictability of daily life to be replaced with uncertainty. Whether cancer requires little change in your daily life for a short period or many changes that need to be accommodated over the long haul, change is inevitable. These changes can add stress to your relationship, but they also can create opportunities to deepen your connection.

Communicating Your Feelings
Good communication is essential for coping with cancer as a couple. However, fear and uncertainty often lead to a “con­spiracy of silence” where, in an attempt to protect each other, partners hide their concerns and feelings. This can cause isolation when they need each other’s support the most. In some cases, rather than actually listening to each other, couples will try to read each other’s minds. They assume they know how their partner feels, and then they act according to those assumptions.

Plan for cancer-free date nights, and engage in activities you enjoy doing together.

Author of Article photo

Sandra Bernstein

Using mindful communication con­cepts can help the two of you establish open communication. Set aside time to talk about your situation with the goal of trying to understand each other’s feel­ings. Listen with a sense of curiosity, reflecting back what you hear, and ac­knowledge your partner’s feelings and take in what he or she has said before you respond, even if you disagree. Don’t immediately try to fix things or offer reassurance, even when the feelings being expressed are scary or hard to hear. In­stead, ask “How can I be here for you?” Don’t get caught up in planning your response while your partner is talking, and don’t switch speakers until the first person feels understood. Repeat this process for each person in turn.

Try taking three relaxation breaths together when you first sit down to talk, as speakers switch, or if one or both of you become anxious or angry. It can be helpful to agree that either partner can call for a “time-out” if they feel emo­tions are getting out of control.

Make a point to discuss what the cancer diagnosis means to your relation­ship early on. Do you want to change your priorities and goals? What are your thoughts on making healthcare decisions, telling others about the diagnosis, and asking for help? What roles can each person play in the family? Who will be the researcher, the decision maker, the caretaker?

Once you know what treatment will entail, set up a planning meeting with your partner. Determine what adjust­ments might need to be made in daily routines and household tasks, and de­cide how you will get to treatment and doctors’ appointments. Identify resources and people who can help. Recognize that your needs might vary over the course of treatment, and any plans you make now need to be flexible.

Nurturing Your Relationship
Side effects of cancer treatment can affect sexual intimacy in many ways – fatigue and changes in sexual function in par­ticular. If you’re experiencing physical side effects, talk with your doctor about ways to maintain sexual health and functioning. It’s important to remem­ber that there is more to intimacy than intercourse; cuddling and touching are valid ways of maintaining an intimate connection. Make time to nurture this part of your relationship.

Additionally, it’s important to continue to have a relationship as a couple outside the cancer experience. Plan for cancer-free date nights, and engage in activities you enjoy doing together. Get creative – maybe it’s time to break out old board games or learn a new skill together.

A unique way to stay connected is by keeping a couple’s journal. You can use it to make note of things you want to discuss or do, share how you’re feel­ing, or share inspirational quotes. This journal doesn’t have to be limited to cancer issues; it can be a lovely way to share all aspects of your lives together.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sandra Bernstein is a family therapist in Montgomeryville, PA, a support group facilitator at the Cancer Support Commu­nity of Philadelphia, and a cancer survivor.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.