How Can You Support Your Partner Through a Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment?
Finding out that your spouse has cancer can be extremely devastating and distressing. One of your initial thoughts might be “How do I support someone through this?”
During cancer treatment, support is integral to not only the patient, but to you as their caregiver. Social support has been found to have positive effects on treatment by reducing stress and improving emotional well-being.8 Married female cancer patients report partner support as vital and has been associated with greater quality of life and lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.3 On the other hand, unsupportive behaviors, such as less empathy and affection, may lead to reduction in the patient’s ability to cope.1, While it may be overwhelming as a caregiver due to the increase in responsibility, you can make a tremendous impact on your partner’s experience and possible road to recovery. Below are four tips on how to best support your partner through their cancer experience, while coping with the process yourself.
Talk to your partner about their cancer diagnosis and foster open communication with them about their emotional experiences.
From the onset of your partner’s diagnosis, you should communicate openly with them. Because cancer negatively affects the quality of both of your lives, you should face it together. Believe it or not, you both may be experiencing many of the same concerns and emotions, as chronic diseases often cause a detrimental impact on mental health in both the patients and spouses.6 For your spouse, it is reassuring and comforting to know that they will have robust support from a loved one throughout their diagnosis, treatment, and recovery stages.
Do not be afraid to disclose that you are feeling scared. Be honest, open, and willing to engage in discussions with your partner, as both of you are coping with major stressors. If conversations about your partner’s cancer diagnosis and challenges are avoided, it may lead to the perception from your partner that you are not supportive.3 As a caregiver, you might use this technique of avoidance as self-protection; however, this can increase your partner’s distress and intrusive thoughts about cancer.3 Couples have reported that having supportive conversations about cancer positively influences their quality of life and has been perceived as being helpful.5 At the same time, negative communication, such as criticism, unhealthy disagreement, and discussing conflict topics, can be damaging to adaptive coping mechanisms.2 Therefore, have discussions where you disclose specific emotional aspects of your experiences, possible approaches to their diagnosis and treatment, coping strategies, finances, household duties and roles, or simply ask them how you can help. Talk about the cancer, as it is related to post traumatic growth and increased appreciation of your loved ones.5
All in all, the more you support one another and engage in healthy discussions, the better your partner’s interpretation of their stressful cancer experience will be. There will be times you need to take on the role as listener and give them the space that they need to react and reflect.
In daily activities, invisibly support your partner.
To gain a sense of connectedness with your partner in your day-to-day lives, you should support your partner on a daily basis. Invisible support is social support that is not visible to your partner; therefore, it goes unnoticed. An example of unobserved support is when you’ve completed household chores and do not mention it to your partner. Invisible support is an important aspect of alleviating stress from the patient, especially when completing daily tasks. Invisible support positively affects your partner’s outlook on challenging circumstances by making them seem less overwhelming.3 This kind of support is especially helpful to your partner, because it doesn’t reduce their feelings of self-efficacy.7
When your daily efforts to support your partner are made obvious to them, your partner may feel like they are incapable of accomplishing those goals on their own. However, when partners are invisibly supported in everyday life, it helps maintain intimacy, psychosocial adaptation, and is linked to a positive evaluation of the relationship, which, in turn, can alleviate distress.7 With that being said, help your partner with duties that will lessen their load without being told to do so, as it will make them feel less overwhelmed.
Talk about sex and intimacy with your partner and challenge your preexisting perceptions.
Sexuality and intimacy in a relationship are directly correlated with quality of life and well-being.4 Your partner’s cancer and treatments may pose a limitation to sexual desires and feelings of attractiveness. Therefore, it is important to foster open communication with one another about intimacy, possible limitations caused by cancer, and general feelings about sex. Acknowledge the issues that may be caused by your preexisting perceptions of frailty, chemotherapy, or even depression on libido.
With cancer, couples usually perceive patients as “fragile,” thus, reducing their sexual desires and needs, which has a significant negative effect on their sexual relationship.4 Sexual intimacy becomes less of a priority because of these associations. Do not think of sex as “frivolous activity,” as it may lead to you feeling guilty about your own wants.4 Challenge those thoughts that you and your partner might have by recognizing and communicating those feelings.
Be aware of the possible limitations that cancer may pose, such as decreased libido9, and have a conversation with your partner and a healthcare professional about intimacy, sex, and alternative modes of sexual behavior. Some true limits need to be negotiated in these discussions, as cancer treatment can hinder sexual performance. If you cannot express your love for each other physically, demonstrate it on an emotional level. Most importantly, remind your partner that their recovery is the number one priority.
To support your partner through cancer, you must take care of yourself first.
This tip revolves around the idea that you cannot pour from an empty cup. Self-care is crucial for your mental and physical health. It serves as a method to prevent stress from escalating and to cope with it as it arises. Take time to enjoy life and know that it is okay to engage in activities that interest you. Exercise and be physically active to promote endorphins and prevent anxiety symptoms.1 Find a supportive, loving, and trustworthy social network of friends, family members, and community resources. This support system can prevent depression and alleviate emotional distress in the initial months of your partner’s cancer.1 If your own needs are not met, it can lead to emotional vulnerability and conflict can follow, which can be detrimental to your relationship and partner’s coping strategies.3
Additionally, find a list of resources and accurate information about cancer care. Obtaining correct information about cancer treatment can help you both in your decision-making process, preparation for treatment, and coping with the adverse effects of the medications.10 These are all measures that you can take to improve your psychological well-being and health during this difficult time.
By facilitating open discussions with your partner about their experiences, emotions, and needs, and helping them with daily tasks leads to an improved quality of life for you and your partner. And know that everything doesn’t have to be about cancer. Go on dates at home, watch movies together, cook together, make time for each other as a couple. It is an overwhelming role to take on, but it is one that can be handled.
6Baider, L., Perez, T., & Kaplan De-Nour, A. (1989). Gender and adjustment to chronic disease: a study of couples with colon cancer. General Hospital Psychiatry, 11(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/0163-8343(89)90018-2
7Belcher, A. J., Laurenceau, J.-P., Graber, E. C., Cohen, L. H., Dasch, K. B., & Siegel, S. D. (2011). Daily support in couples coping with early-stage breast cancer: maintaining intimacy during adversity. Health Psychology, 30(6), 665–673. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024705
3Borstelmann, N. A., Rosenberg, S. M., Ruddy, K. J., Tamimi, R. M., Gelber, S., Schapira, L., … Partridge, A. H. (2015). Partner support and anxiety in young women with breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology (Chichester, England), 24(12), 1679–1685. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.3780
10Chua, G. P., Tan, H. K., & Gandhi, M. (2018). What information do cancer patients want and how well are their needs being met? Ecancermedicalscience, 12, 873. https://doi.org/10.3332/ecancer.2018.873
1García‐Torres, F., Jacek Jabłoński, M., Gómez Solís, Ángel, Moriana, J. A., Jaén‐Moreno, M. J., Moreno‐Díaz, M. J., & Aranda, E. (2020). Social support as predictor of anxiety and depression in cancer caregivers six months after cancer diagnosis: a longitudinal study. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 29(5-6), 996–1002. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.15123
4Hawkins, Y., Ussher, J., Gilbert, E., Perz, J., Sandoval, M., & Sundquist, K. (2009). Changes in sexuality and intimacy after the diagnosis and treatment of cancer: the experience of partners in a sexual relationship with a person with cancer. Cancer Nursing, 32(4), 271–280. https://doi.org/10.1097/NCC.0b013e31819b5a93
2Jabłoński, M. J., García-Torres, F., Zielińska, P., Bułat, A., & Brandys, P. (2020). Emotional burden and perceived social support in male partners of women with cancer. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4188. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124188
8Kim, J., Jeong Yeob Han, Shaw, B., McTavish, F., & Gustafson, D. (2010). The roles of social support and coping strategies in predicting breast cancer patients’ emotional well-being. Journal of Health Psychology, 15(4), 543–552. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105309355338
9Melisko, M. E., Goldman, M., & Rugo, H. S. (2010). Amelioration of sexual adverse effects in the early breast cancer patient. Journal of Cancer Survivorship, 4(3), 247-255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11764-010-0130-1
5Scott, J. L., Halford, W. K., & Ward, B. G. (2004). United We Stand? The effects of a couple-coping intervention on adjustment to early-stage breast or gynecological cancer. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1122–1135. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.72.6.1122