by Rene Barrat-Gordon, LISW-S, ACSW
When your wife is diagnosed with cancer, you may find yourself suddenly thrust into a new role as caregiver. As her spouse, you must learn how to support her both emotionally and practically. But how can you best help your wife through cancer while also getting the support you need as a caregiver?
Offer emotional support.
Try to be as nonjudgmental as you can toward your wife’s fears and emotions while also acknowledging your own feelings. Don’t minimize her feelings by saying something like, “Don’t worry, you just have breast cancer. Everything will be fine.” Anyone with cancer fears the worst, even if the prognosis is good. If you don’t know what to say, just remain quiet and listen. It’s OK to cry in front of her. Even though she is dealing with cancer, your wife still wants to know what you’re feeling. Sharing your emotions with her sends a message that she can also share with you, and that you are in this together.
If your wife will be losing her hair during chemotherapy and she asks you to go with her to pick out a wig, be honest with your opinions, or suggest a friend who has better taste than you do. Let your wife know that she is still beautiful and that you love her, but don’t make obviously unrealistic claims. She’ll see right through it.
It’s also important to be honest about intimacy and your sexual feelings. I once counseled a husband who avoided sexual intimacy with his wife because he didn’t want to put any extra burden on her. While he thought he was being helpful, it ended up making his wife feel that he no longer found her attractive. Once they talked, the husband realized his wife still needed intimacy, but she had more energy for it at certain times of the day than at others.
If you, as a spouse, aren’t sure what your wife needs, ask. Be honest, and let her know that you can’t read her mind.
Accept offers of help.
During your wife’s cancer treatment, people may offer help with anything from giving rides to chemo treatments, to cooking meals, to taking care of your children. Talk to your wife about what would be helpful for both of you. Ask her what she is comfortable accepting help with. Is she OK with you responding to others on her behalf? What information is she comfortable with you sharing in her absence? Make a plan for asking for and accepting help from others that works for both of you.
Let go of the need to control everything.
As a spouse, you may want to take control and “fix” the situation. But you need to let your wife take the lead. Remember, it is her body and her health, and she is the one in charge. Before jumping in, ask her what areas she is comfortable with you handling as her spouse. For example, is she OK with you asking the doctor questions, or would she rather you just take notes and let her do the talking?
When one partner is going through cancer treatment, roles may be changed. Try to maintain as much normalcy as possible. If your wife wants to work, clean, shop, take care of the kids, or exercise, don’t tell her she needs to stay in bed and rest. Her doctor should be the one who sets limits on her activities. Try not to “smother mother” her.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t pitch in and help out in areas that were once her domain. Cancer-related fatigue is on a completely different level than simply being tired, and your wife may not be up for all the duties she once took on. Ask her what you can do to help. And if you see a big laundry basket sitting at the bottom of the stairs, go ahead and carry it up.
Take time to care for yourself.
As a spouse and caregiver, you cannot effectively support your wife emotionally or help take care of her practical needs if you are not also taking good care of yourself. You need to take time to exercise, eat well, get enough rest, and have your own support system, even if that just means finding a good friend you can confide in. Yes, caring for your wife is important, but so is caring for yourself. You shouldn’t feel guilty when you take some time to look after your own needs.
Rene Barrat-Gordon is an oncology social worker in the Breast Cancer Program at the Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute in Cleveland, OH.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2016.