When Your Partner Has Breast Cancer

When Your Partner Has Breast Cancer Shelley and Keith Hardeman

Some (Not So) Obvious Caregiving Tips from a Husband’s Perspective

by Keith T. Hardeman

There are few things more frightening than a cancer diagnosis for your spouse. This was our new life change a couple of years ago when my wife, Shelley, received her breast cancer diagnosis. As her caregiver, I learned how the dreadful cocktail of emotional distress, professional obligations, and new caregiving responsibilities made for an overwhelming combination. In addition, the duties of cooking, cleaning, dishes, and laundry that we previously shared fell exclusively on my shoulders during intense portions of her chemotherapy. It often meant staying up until midnight and rising at 4 a.m. to keep up. But there was no other choice, as my wife was fiercely coping with a life-threatening situation and a marathon of harrowing treatment.

Though Shelley clearly dealt with the worst of an ugly situation, she would be the first to say the emotional side of her cancer battle was every bit as hard on me as it was on her. Her success would take incredible strength from both of us.

There’s no universal playbook on how best to handle caregiving, but there are a few core principles that helped us navigate our cancer crisis together. Let me lay them out for you.

Be teammates, no matter what.

You’ll have different, complementary roles during cancer treatment, but you’re both vitally important to a productive outcome. Practicing shared empathy, listening, offering support to one another, and working together are all critical factors. Be there for your partner on all fronts.

Caregivers can’t do it all, and there’s nothing wrong with asking others for help.

Whenever possible, go with your spouse to doctors’ visits and treatments. Two of you will remember more during medical consultations than just one of you would. Two of you will ask more questions of your oncology team. Perhaps most importantly, two of you can always supply a shoulder for the other to cry on.

Above all, be willing to talk and listen to one another. Take turns leaning on each other. You’re both going through a tremendously difficult time that will test your physical and emotional limits.

Don’t tackle your teammate.

Though all partnerships have occasional spats, cancer treatment offers enough life turbulence without needless skirmishes over the thermostat setting or the best route to a destination. Treatment will often make your wife feel downright lousy, which may affect her tolerance of daily frustrations. Because of this, if Shelley criticized me, my usual response was a calm, “You’re right, honey,” or “My bad,” rather than getting defensive.


Now, if you’re reading this and thinking, “I shouldn’t have to apologize if I’m not wrong,” you’ve completely missed the point. When she’s fighting cancer, she shouldn’t need to exert precious energy fighting you too. Unnecessarily escalating relational hostilities during this challenging time accomplishes nothing. There should be no couple-issue scorekeeping when cancer is involved.

You’re still a couple, and you can manage intimacy and cancer if you work at it.

There’s little in the treatment routine that makes cancer fighters feel good, either physically or emotionally. If your wife undergoes chemo, she’ll probably lose much, or all, of her head and body hair. She’ll likely feel unattractive when it occurs. And when she’s nauseated and worn out, intimacy won’t often be in the forefront of her mind. 

It’s important to talk to her about your desire for intimacy without judgment. You must accept and respect how she feels. Ultimately, the cancer fighter has the final say. Don’t make her feel guilty for something over which she has no control.

There’s a lot of useful information about sex and cancer on various legitimate cancer websites. But, awkward as it may seem, it might even be better to have candid conversations about intimacy concerns with a member of your oncology team. Shelley and I took that route, and we got straight, comfortable, nonjudgmental answers from one of our veteran nurses who seemed pleased to address the issue.

Caregiving burnout is real. You need to take care of yourself too!

This is far easier said than done. And it’s something at which I failed, miserably, during the first six weeks following my wife’s diagnosis. One evening, I experienced chest pain and shortness of breath and thought I was having a heart attack. I was hospitalized for stress-induced atrial fibrillation. My blood pressure was 160/100, and my pulse was an erratic 187. When I was released, I knew I had to unearth some coping skills. Pushing myself to a state of physical and emotional breakdown would render me useless as a caregiver. 

Caregivers can’t do it all, and there’s nothing wrong with asking others for help. Besides, your thoughtful friends and family are likely bursting to help you during your time of need. Take them up on their offers of providing meals, running errands, or doing yardwork. I’d also encourage disclosing the situation to your employer. Mine was enormously supportive and offered a lot of much needed flexibility.

Finally, be very attentive to your own physical health. Try to eat right, get adequate sleep, and exercise whenever possible. Initially, you may find this difficult (as I did). However, when the new normal of accepting disease and treatment realities materializes (and eventually it will), preserving healthy habits should be a little easier. Always recognize your limitations, and give yourself a pass when you’re not perfect. If the dishes don’t get done, they’ll still be there the next morning.

Though all partnerships have occasional spats, cancer treatment offers enough life turbulence without needless skirmishes over the thermostat setting or the best route to a destination.

Seek out others who’ve been there.

Whether it’s with friends or with a support group, talk to someone! It helps unload some of the caregiving burden. We found discussions with others who had similar experiences to be particularly beneficial. Right after Shelley’s diagnosis, we phoned two friends, a couple who together had endured the wife’s breast cancer treatment with a positive outcome. As a survivor and caregiver, they empathized with us and understood our fears, which helped to calm us. Their narrative clarified many uncertainties as we awaited the unknown.

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You might also find camaraderie among cancer fighters and caregivers at your cancer clinic. Conversations with others in various waiting rooms and the infusion center sparked quickly for us. Most people we met were quite willing to both share and listen.

Be prepared for cancer’s emotional swings.

When the desired goal of being cancer-free is potentially a year away, you’ll both experience myriad good and bad days. For your sanity’s sake, keep your emotions in balance. Don’t get too giddy when something goes well or demoralized when there’s a setback, as both will happen repeatedly. Shelley and I accepted the negatives and emphasized the positives – which we called “little victories” – with measured celebrations.

Cancer is an invasive monster, and its treatment is as ugly as the disease. Your partner didn’t ask for this to happen. Make it your mission to help her be as comfortable as possible.

Keith T. Hardeman is a professor of speech communication at Westminster College in Fulton, MO.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2019. 

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