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Helping your partner or spouse cope

Even the best relationships will be challenged by cancer. Cancer can be a very stressful event that can strengthen a relationship or strain it – or both. You and your partner may cope differently with cancer. For example:

  • One of you may feel more hopeful, while the other is more pessimistic.
  • One of you may want to find out all you can about the cancer, while the other feels better not knowing as much.
  • One of you may want to choose more aggressive treatment than the other.
  • One of you may be more comfortable talking about feelings and emotions, or asking for help, than the other.

If both partners can recognize their strengths and weaknesses, then your differences can be an advantage. For example, the one who likes to do research can take on that responsibility, while the one who is better at talking about feelings and emotions can make sure that you both talk about what you need and feel. The most important thing is to communicate openly and honestly with your partner. Don’t assume or try to guess what your partner is thinking or feeling.

Here are some ideas for talking about cancer and helping your partner cope:

  • Try to schedule a daily time to sit down and talk.
  • Talk honestly about all your feelings, good and bad. Don’t worry about upsetting your partner or feeling guilty about how you feel. Anger, fear, frustration and resentment are normal reactions to cancer.
  • Talk about any differences in feelings. Respect your partner’s point of view.
  • Talk about how each of you is coping.
  • If you have something difficult to discuss, practise what you are going to say.
  • As you deal with cancer, think about how you and your partner coped with hard times in the past. What strategies worked? How might you do things differently now? It can help to write down a list of things that you both do to make the relationship strong.
  • Think about what you need most today from your partner and ask for it.
  • Give yourselves some time away from cancer – a time or place where cancer is not the topic of conversation. Talk about things other than cancer and do other things together.
  • If you’re feeling stressed, it may help to give yourselves short breaks from each other. You may be so worried about your partner that you forget to look after yourself.
  • Sometimes talking to someone else – perhaps a friend, relative or someone completely outside your situation, like a counsellor – can help.
  • Be sensitive to signs that your partner is having a bad day or in a bad mood. Keep difficult or emotional discussions for another day.
  • You can meet with the healthcare team together to learn about cancer and treatment options.
  • Try to focus on short-term goals to stay connected with each other. Often our priorities about things like travel and retirement change after a cancer diagnosis. Give yourself and your partner time to think and adjust.

Even though it may not be easy, you also need to think about and plan for the future. Planning for your care in advance – and writing it down – lets you decide for yourself how you want to be cared for in different situations and who will act for you, if necessary. Meet with a lawyer or financial planner, or both, to help you plan your future.


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