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Your Relationship When Treatment Ends

Facing the Transition Together

by Karen Kayser, PhD, MSW

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When cancer hits home, it can often bring couples closer together. But what happens when treatment ends? Do you still need support? What about your partner? What kind of new challenges will the two of you face?

Making the Transition
After treat­ment, most cancer survivors and their partners experience a transition phase. Cancer dominated your relationship for months – maybe years – and now you must adjust to a life that no longer revolves around cancer.

Although this is something to look forward to, the post-treatment phase presents its own challenges. You may notice your support system dwindling as friends and family assume that your life is back to normal and you no longer need their help. Some couples may even find themselves drift­ing apart now that the enemy that compelled them to join forces is no longer an immediate threat. As you and your partner move from active treatment to survivorship, take this opportunity to reflect on your life during treatment and decide how you want to go forward together.

Getting Back to Work
During treat­ment, you may have taken time off work or quit your job altogether. Likewise, you may have relinquished some of your household responsibilities to your partner and put your usual social activi­ties on hold.

As you consider getting back to your pre-cancer routine, sit down with your partner and make a list of the activities or tasks you would like to resume now that treatment has ended. Keep in mind that treatment-related side effects, such as pain, fatigue, and restricted mobility, can affect your functioning, and you may need to reduce your workload, especially if you’re returning to a phys­ically demanding job.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Karen Kayser

If you’re searching for a new job, discuss your concerns with your partner. For example, you may be dealing with low self-esteem or worrying about disclosing your diagnosis to a new em­ployer. Your partner is there to support and encourage you. Take some time to figure out your new personal and career goals, and let your partner know what he or she can do to help you meet them. When you’re ready, ease back into work and other activities at a pace that matches your energy level.

Managing Difficult Emotions
The emotional trauma of cancer can persist long after treatment ends. Regardless of who had cancer and who served as caregiver, you both will need continued emotional support.

It is common for cancer survivors and their partners to experience fear of recurrence and other unpleasant thoughts or difficult emotions. Psychological research suggests that mindfulness- or acceptance-based coping strategies can help couples effectively manage these intrusive thoughts and difficult emotions.

These approaches encourage you to accept the fact that unpleasant thoughts are going to come into your conscious­ness from time to time. However, you can practice letting them go by remind­ing yourself that you’re in control. When negative thoughts occur, release them by repeating to yourself, “These are simply fearful thoughts. They are not reality. I can let them come and go,” and then move on.

Reigniting the Spark
Sexual dys­function is another cancer-related side effect that can stick around beyond treatment. For women, this may in­clude loss of desire, increased vaginal dryness, and pain during intercourse. Men may also experience loss of de­sire, as well as difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection. Despite these issues, you and your partner can still be intimate. Communicate your sexual needs with one another and discover new ways to be physically and emotionally close.

Walking the Journey Together
Your life after cancer treatment may never be the same as it was before cancer. But you and your partner now have the op­portunity to define for yourselves a new normal. For instance, if you learned new ways to reduce stress during treatment (perhaps by practicing meditation or by limiting and prioritizing activities), you may want to incorporate these strategies into your post-cancer life. By embracing the positive effects of your cancer ex­perience and supporting each other’s goals for the future, you and your part­ner can enjoy a stronger relationship and a more fulfilling life together.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Karen Kayser is a professor and Renato LaRocca Endowed Chair in Oncology Social Work at the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work in Louisville, KY. Dr. Kayser has extensive clinical experience in working with couples coping with cancer-related stress, and she has published several books on couples, coping, and cancer, includ­ing Helping Couples Cope with Women’s Cancers, coauthored by Jennifer Scott.

Learn more about how cancer can affect your relationships at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.