A cancer diagnosis affects not only the patient, but also his or her partner or spouse as well, truly testing the traditional wedding vow, “in sickness and health.” The impact of a cancer diagnosis will be different from couple to couple. This challenge can strengthen the bond some couples have while exacerbating challenges other couples may be experiencing.
There are many challenges that occur in relationships including changing roles, emotional needs, intimacy issues, and planning for the future, among others. However, the first step in overcoming most challenges lies in understanding and clear communication. Both the patient and his or her partner or spouse need to have an understanding of what the other is going through to truly be supportive. Developing greater understanding begins with open communication.
“It’s important that both individuals remain willing to express their needs, concerns, fears, and hopes to one another,” says Cheryl Beatrice, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California with a background in grief, loss, and forgiveness. “A cancer diagnosis can leave both parties experiencing feelings of anger, hopelessness, anxiety, sadness, in a nutshell, grieving the illness and its impact (known and unknown) on the relationship, individual, and family. A caregiver needs to be able to communicate when he or she is feeling overwhelmed without diminishing the feelings of what the cancer patient is going through. Likewise, the cancer patient needs to communicate what he or she is experiencing, too.”
Many cancer patients may not want to feel like a burden on their spouse, and may not ask for help when they need it. Alternatively, caregivers may not want to offer help for fear of offending their partner, or they may not want to speak up and risk distracting from their spouse’s feelings. Clear communication and empathy can help this common problem.
“It’s important to remember to stay on the same team,” says Beatrice. “Roles and responsibilities may change and shift, and it may be uncomfortable to have to rely on someone for help, especially when you’re used to being the one everyone relies on. That can be uncomfortable territory. Getting and staying in touch with your emotions and communicating them with your partner is crucial.”
Beatrice recommends several ways to help maintain your marriage after a cancer diagnosis and during treatment.
“Repeating the same information again and again can be overwhelming. If the news is not great, it can also exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and despair. Put one extended family member in charge of medical updates to those outside of your immediate family. Tell that one person every time there is an update, and let him or her be in charge of fielding those calls. Putting someone else in charge of communicating outside widens your support circle so it doesn’t feel so lonely,” Beatrice says.
Recognize that there are many changes that you will experience during this time both physically and emotionally. Beatrice continues, “Talking openly and honestly about what you need, whether it’s help getting dressed or just some extra reassurance will help avoid misunderstandings or miscommunication.”
The main thing to remember is that relationships can become stronger during tough times with constant, clear communication, and empathy for each other.
There are many additional resources available for more extensive help. Click here to visit the National Cancer Institute’s resources for caregivers.