10 tips for keeping relationships strong through the cancer journey

Michael Uhl, Mind-Body Therapist at our Illinois hospital, believes that relationships can withstand cancer treatment, with the right strategies. He shares 10 tips.

Living with cancer is one of the hardest things a person may face in his or her lifetime. Not only do cancer patients have to battle the disease and the side effects from treatment, cancer can also test relationships. 

Michael Uhl, MA, MDiv, LMFT, Mind-Body Therapist at our Illinois hospital, believes that relationships can withstand cancer treatment, with the right strategies. “There is a great story to tell here. From what I have seen, when one partner in the relationship is diagnosed with cancer, the chances of that couple staying together are strong—if the couple is willing to work together,” Uhl says. “A crisis moment in a relationship or marriage is like heat from a welding torch. You can use the heat to either cut a piece of metal apart or bind two pieces together.”

The 10 tips

To help couples bind together, Uhl offers the following 10 tips:

Keep communication open. Communication does not always mean you two have to agree, but rather come to a mutual understanding. Honesty and transparency are two tools for fostering closeness. I like to think of communication as a vehicle, but mutual understanding is the destination.

Rely on developed skills. Most couples do not realize that they already have the tools to cope with cancer based on previous crises. Remembering how they overcame difficult situations in the past may help a couple develop coping strategies in the current situation.

Allow room for a “time out.” Cancer can cause feelings of anger and depression. Allow your partner to feel his or her emotions and be comfortable if he or she wants to take a moment alone. The end goal is to fight the cancer, not each other.

Remain intimate. Intimacy does not necessarily mean sex. In fact, cancer treatment side effects often make sex uncomfortable. Instead, intimacy means spending time together—holding hands, reading together, talking, etc. 

Find time to do the things you love. Take time to play and have fun together—fishing, going to a movie, playing board games, or even watching sports on TV.

Boost your support network. When a significant other is diagnosed with cancer, the caregiver is tasked with extra responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help, giving your partner a chance to take a break and process his or her emotions.

Find other couples in a similar situation. These couples, often found in support groups, are more likely to understand what you are going through. Don’t be afraid to seek tips and advice from others, and share what you have found works in your own relationship while recognizing that each couple’s experience is unique.

Hold each other accountable. Cancer often causes stress, and stress can compromise the immune system. Remind each other to participate in healthy activities to remain resilient—getting plenty of rest, eating nutritious meals and exercising.

Don’t blame each other. Many people blame themselves or their loved ones for getting cancer, by being too stressed out, working too hard or smoking. Realize there are many factors that contribute to cancer, not just one.

Speak with a therapist. Speaking with a therapist who is unbiased and has experience with other cancer patients may help couples express their emotions, confirm that the feelings they are experiencing are normal, and help provide useful coping tools.

By incorporating these strategies into their relationships, couples may be better apt to remain strong and regain hope in the face of cancer. To help support couples through the cancer journey, our hospitals also offer stress-reducing services to patients and their loved ones, including individual, couples and family counseling, relaxation and guided imagery, and support groups.

Get more tips on caring for a loved one with cancer.