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When Your Partner Has Cancer

by Drucilla Brethwaite, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, and Paul Clark, PhD, LCSW

Wellness image

A cancer diagnosis in the fam­ily can elicit strong emotions – fear, anger, sadness – and those strong emotions can interfere with your ability to problem solve and engage in life. In order to find a “new normal” after diagnosis, it helps to become aware of how you and your partner communi­cate and function as a team.

Communication Styles
Cancer can be a time of unpredictability. Both part­ners often wonder, “What will become of me? Of us?” It’s common for couples to have different emotional reactions to cancer or to struggle with finding the right words to describe their concerns and needs. Knowing how you and your partner are most comfortable with giving and receiving information can minimize communication challenges. For instance, when you are faced with a problem, do you process the situation out loud, or do you tend to take time to mull it over, find the right words, and then talk? What about your partner?

When it comes to receiving infor­mation, are you a “details person” or someone who likes to know the big pic­ture and then select your own details? Too much detail can be burdensome for the person with a big-picture mind­set. However, details can be important when it comes to cancer. It might be beneficial to have the “detailed” part­ner attend physician appointments and keep records, then relay that informa­tion as needed.

Reinforce your partnership by acknowledging how you both have grown from this experience.

Author of Article photo

Drucilla Brethwaite

Consider also how long or how often cancer should be a topic of conversation. When talking about cancer, if your part­ner appears ready to move on to a new topic, be prepared to do so even if you aren’t. Conversely, if your partner needs to leave the door open to a variety of possibilities when talking about cancer, be careful not to set a limit on the discus­sion even if you’re ready to go forward and make a decision.

Role Reversals
There can be many role changes when your partner has can­cer. And when responsibilities change, “rules” for getting things done are going to get broken. No one is a mind reader, so checking where the dishes go in the dishwasher and anticipating unusual reactions to typical behaviors can help minimize conflict. There is a learning curve with new tasks, and despite all your good intentions, you must accept that you are not going to get it right all the time.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Paul Clark

Keep reasonable expectations. Know your strengths, but also be honest about your limitations. Monitor your energy. Nothing can lead more quickly to mis­reading a situation – resulting in conflict – than fatigue. Although a lot has changed, identify what remains the same.

Building the Team
Team­work is essential, and your best team is your old team. Coping with the chal­lenges of cancer involves building on your founda­tion as a couple. What was it that first drew the two of you together? Having trouble remembering? Take out those old photos and engage in some story telling. Ask yourself, “What is the quality I most admire in my partner?” Is he (or she) creative, adventurous, or funny?

Reinforce your partnership by ac­knowledging how you both have grown from this experience. For instance, take turns completing this sentence: “Before cancer, I never had to …, but now I know that I can ….”

Feeling connected can also give you strength. Don’t forget the power of touch; sit close, give each other a hand, a shoulder massage, or simply an un- expected hug. Engage in activities that help maintain relationships with family and friends.

When was the last time the two of you did something for the first time? Sharing new experiences provides an opportunity for self-discovery, emotional expression, and memory making. Sign up for a workshop, or attend a sporting event where you can cheer with the crowd and be swept up in the action.

While strong emotion can present chal­lenges to what was once everyday life, it doesn’t have to change the way you feel about each other. Fos­tering good communication, setting realistic expectations, and working together as a team can help you preserve your identity and intimacy as a couple as you navi­gate your “new normal” after cancer.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Drucilla Brethwaite is an oncology counselor for Inova Cancer Ser­vices’ Life with Cancer program and a faculty member in the department of Social Work at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Dr. Paul Clark is also an oncology coun­selor for Life with Cancer and an assistant professor in the department of Social Work at George Mason University.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2012.