Coping with Cancer Together
How to Work as a Team when One Partner Is Diagnosed with Cancer
by Lynne E. Thomas, MSW, ACSW
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, it can send their life into a tailspin as they process new medical information, discern treatment recommendations, and wonder how all of this will affect their life and their family. Research shows that a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment can cause a great deal of stress, not only for the person with cancer but also for their intimate partner. Cancer survivors and their families may find dealing with cancer to be one of the most stressful times of their lives.
Studies show that having a supportive relationship can help both cancer survivors and their partners navigate the challenges and stressors of coping with a serious illness like cancer. Working together as a team helps couples juggle their many competing priorities, which may include work, home, and family life; coordination of medical appointments; dealing with the side effects of cancer treatment; changes in roles and responsibilities; finances; and fatigue. Good teamwork can also help a couple protect their lives from being consumed by cancer and instead focus on what matters most – living life with joy and having the relationship they’ve always wanted.
Bridging the Gap Between the Sexes
Though everyone is unique, in general, men and women often respond differently during times of stress. Women typically reach out to others to share their concerns and fears, whereas men are less likely to discuss their emotions, especially when that emotion is fear. Men often respond to stress by trying to solve the problem, while women often want to talk it out, even when this will not change the outcome. Neither is right or wrong, just different. What is most helpful is knowing and understanding the coping strategies that are useful to yourself and which strategies are helpful to your partner.
To bridge the gap created by these different coping styles, a couple can learn to work together as a team, recognizing each other’s differences as strengths and building upon those strengths to come together over shared goals and values. For example, partners may learn that instead of trying to solve a problem at once, it is more helpful to be present and listen, even when the person they love is crying or upset. Also, a couple may learn the importance of being specific and only focusing on what they need from each other today, avoiding both past grievances and the “what-ifs” of the future.
To better understand each other’s needs, couples can be curious and ask questions of one another, especially when confused about a partner’s behavior, to ensure that each other’s needs are met throughout the cancer experience. When this happens, many cancer survivors and their partners find that facing cancer together actually helps them grow as individuals, as well as grow closer to one another as a couple.
Communication and Problem-Solving Tips for Men
Even the most supportive person can have a tough time knowing what to say or do to provide comfort, and where and when to find help. Here are some practical tips for men:
- Communicate with your partner in a way that you will be proud of in the future.
- Be courageous, honest, and open with your partner and your family about your feelings and how the illness is affecting you so they are not guessing.
- Actively encourage your partner and family to share their emotions, concerns, and fears, both rational and irrational.
- Listen to your loved ones’ concerns without minimizing, trying to fix things, or giving advice (unless asked).
- Only give reassurances that are based in reality. For example, instead of telling your partner everything’s going to be OK, say something like, “We will get through this together. You can count on me.”
- If your partner is the one with cancer, be actively involved:
- Be physically present at all medical appointments as policies allow, even when not asked.
- Take notes, ask questions, and learn about your partner’s illness and treatments.
- Advocate for yourself or your partner if needed (with healthcare providers or family members).
- Solve problems together as a team and discuss openly and honestly how you can both contribute and lean on one another’s strengths.
- Prioritize doing things that are meaningful to each of you individually and as a couple:
- Create joy in your day-to-day relationship; just a few moments in each day can make a difference.
- Look into tasks you can delegate to friends and family, thus allowing you extra time to spend together as a couple.
Communication and Problem-Solving Tips for Women
Chances are you and your partner really want to be there to support one another through the ups and downs of living with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, but you may not know exactly how. Here are some practical tips for women:
- Communicate with your partner in a way that you will be proud of in the future. Approach the conversation openly and with curiosity.
- Be mindful of how you begin a conversation; think of the outcome you are looking for prior to discussing a thorny issue.
- Don’t test your partner. Be specific about what you want and need at the beginning of an interaction.
- Accept help from family and friends.
- If your partner is exhibiting a confusing behavior, ask them about it with an open mind instead of assuming or trying to read their mind.
- Solve problems together as a team.
- Prioritize doing things that are meaningful to each of you, individually and as a couple.
- Share your concerns, and when you do, clarify for your partner whether you want them just to listen or whether you are seeking help or advice.
- Accept that you and your partner might cope with stress differently, and respect those differences.
- Create joy in your day-to-day relationship. A few moments in each day can make a difference during stressful times.
- Take good care of yourself emotionally and physically. Seek professional support if needed.
Lynne Thomas is a clinical social worker in the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, CA, where the Couples Coping with Cancer Together Program provides gender-and strength-based education and support to survivors and their partners.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2022.