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Facing cancer as a couple

Cancer impacts every aspect of a person’s life, including their relationships. “Cancer can affect a spouse in many ways, especially if the spouse is now transitioning to becoming their partner’s primary caregiver” says Heather Swick, mind-body therapist at our hospital near Chicago. “The spouse may go through a range of feelings such as anger, sadness, fear, joy or anxiety in taking on this new role.”

Each relationship is different, but some common challenges that couples face when a spouse is diagnosed with cancer may include:

  • Role changes: The caregiver may now be taking on the roles and responsibilities that their partner used to do at home. This can cause anxiety and frustration for the couple.
  • Decreased intimacy: Emotional and/or physical changes in the body may result in a lower sex drive. In some cases, treatment suppresses the estrogen or testosterone in the body, which can make sex painful or not advisable. Couples are often challenged to find new and different ways to express their love and compassion.
  • Loss of independence: 90 percent of cancer patients struggle with low energy. When a patient is unable to do what they used to do because they feel fatigued, it takes a toll on the person, as well as his/her family. Feelings of guilt can arise if a parent is too tired to play with children or spend time with their spouse.
  • Future plans: A cancer diagnosis can change how couples plan for their future together. Fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the future, coupled with changes in family routines, can cause anxiety for a patient and his or her spouse.

Communication is key

Good communication is key when managing the relationship challenges of a cancer diagnosis.  “Conflict resolution is based on one’s ability to communicate clearly,” says Dr. David Wakefield, psychologist at our hospital in Tulsa. “”If one person lacks the skills of healthy communication, life can become very complicated in a brief time.

One of the challenges that couples typically face is different communication styles. Couples who work to keep the lines of communication open, and clearly express their needs as well as their fears, strengthen their relationship.

“It may be difficult for each partner to communicate their needs for fear of not wanting to ‘hurt’ their partner or put added stress on them or the situation,” says Swick. “From my experience, cancer can bring couples closer together and open up room for clear communication to occur.”

For Rod Echols, colorectal cancer survivor, and his wife Keisha, communication was an initial barrier.

“Rod is not a big communicator, naturally. It was tough not knowing at times what he was really going through,” Keisha says. “A lot of times I had to guess, or watch for nonverbal cues to try and understand how he was feeling.”

Keisha was able to overcome this challenge simply by asking Rod how he was feeling. Eventually, she was able to take note of his behaviors and read his nonverbal cues to better understand what he needed. “From a caregiver’s perspective, it’s really vital that there be an open line of communication. It helps even without cancer. It helps you de-stress and get things off your chest,” says Keisha.

Every relationship goes through good and bad times. It’s important to try to stay positive and be each other’s biggest cheerleader throughout cancer treatment. Dr. Wakefield suggests both partners attempt to go with the flow as much as possible during this time. “Be flexible. There are many twists and curves in a cancer journey. Be adaptable.”

How can a couple overcome the challenges of cancer together?

Dr. Wakefield suggests the following tips to keep your relationship strong during and after cancer:

  • Stay connected to your spiritual roots. Spirituality can help sustain hope for the entire family.
  • Stay connected with your social support network. According to Dr. Wakefield, the number one predictor on how well a person will survive a crisis is directly related to how much social support they have.
  • Find a therapist you can connect with to help you and your spouse process all that is happening.
  • Let go of “normal.” Focus on developing a new normal. Accept that life has changed.
  • Find new ways to be intimate with your partner besides sex, such as massages, holding hands or writing love notes.
  • Make a list of all of your coping skills and begin to implement them. Attempt to add to this list as you develop new skills.
  • Educate yourself on your specific cancer. Be proactive instead of reactive.
  • Learn ways to renew energy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
  • Put a financial plan in place so that both you and your spouse can focus energy on getting well instead of worrying about how to provide for the family.
  • Be flexible and adaptable throughout the cancer journey.
  • Find something you can control in life in a healthy way to counteract the feelings of helplessness that can occur.
  • Take inventory of your personality traits that are helpful and personality traits that are self-defeating. Let go of those past and current traits that don’t help you.
  • Decrease other stressors in your life as much as possible. Since stress represses your immune system, removing stressors can aid in your ability to heal.
  • Allow others to help you. Don’t feel that you and your spouse have to go through cancer alone. Take advantage of your community and your inner circle.
  • Grieve your - or your spouse’s - current loss of health and all the losses that cancer has created.
  • Let go of toxic relationships. Forgive those who have hurt you, and move forward. Surround yourself with positive people who are loving and supportive.
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