Helping Your Partner Cope With a Cancer Diagnosis
How to help your husband, wife or partner cope with a new cancer diagnosis
Most people know a friend or family member who has been diagnosed with some form of cancer in the past. Just the mention of the word cancer fills many of us with dread. And there’s no doubt that a cancer diagnosis is a life changing and emotionally and physically devastating moment for any individual to have to contend with.
For a husband, wife or partner, helping a loved one cope and come to terms with their diagnosis can be the single biggest challenge. Not only are there powerful feelings to overcome and invasive treatments to undergo but there are everyday practicalities to consider and how this is going to affect your life together.
Here at Forktip, we do what we can to help the community in any way possible. It is in this spirit, one of our team members who has personally helped a loved one cope with a cancer diagnosis wrote this guide.
The Darkest Moment
Being told you have cancer is not like the doctor saying you have diabetes or high blood pressure, both of which you can immediately do something about.
It’s a moment of great personal upheaval, a time when a dark well of uncertainty suddenly opens and the future looks hopelessly bleak. However well the news has been broken by your doctor, and however good the prognosis is, there is always going to be that initial moment of terror, pain and shock.
The first few days are going to be very difficult both for the person diagnosed and those who love them. All you can do during this time is absorb the impact and let it hit you. Some people can start to think rationally from the outset but they are few and far between.
For most of us, it’s all a question of weathering the storm and getting through to slightly calmer waters where we can begin to understand what is happening.
There will usually be a period of delay while the oncology services take a closer look at your cancer and decide what needs to be done. This can be a terrible time as you and your partner wonder what is going to happen next and how bad everything really is.
This is not the moment to be taking rash decisions made at the height of your emotions, however. Treat it simply as a period where you absorb the shock and come to terms with the diagnosis.
Quick Tips for Coping with the Initial Diagnosis
- Be aware that emotions will vary and there is no set pattern or anything you can really do.
- If you want to sit in the bedroom and cry, you can. If you want to be alone for a while, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.
- This is essentially a period of intense grieving and there’s no set time to it. Much depends on how you and your partner feel.
- Make sure you eat properly even if you don’t feel like it and drink plenty of water to keep you hydrated.
- Once the initial shock has passed, you can discuss who you are going to tell and how you are going to tell them, particularly if you have children.
- Start getting your support network in place so you know who you can call on when you need help. That includes involving the right people from work so they know what is happening.
- Begin doing your research on the condition. You will find a lot online particularly through support groups and it will help you understand the processes that are to follow.
Dealing with Feelings
The emotional core of a cancer diagnosis is far from simple but is normally the first thing we need to deal with. People react to it in widely different ways as you might expect. That doesn’t just mean your wife, husband or partner who has been diagnosed but how you react to everything else, including your children, friends and family.
Those emotions can change and develop. At first your partner may be overwhelmed by the enormity of what has just happened. Then they might feel anger, wondering why they have been the unlucky one; depressed because they are worried they are going to die; even guilty that they have done something to contribute to the disease. They might also feel isolated because they believe no one else in the world is suffering this way and can’t possibly understand what they are going through.
As a partner helping someone through this difficult period it can be a minefield choosing the right words or helping in the best way possible. There is no set formula you can call upon. Much will depend on you as individuals and what is required from moment to moment. Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. Most people do.
Make Sure You Talk (and Listen)
It’s not easy for many people to talk in depth and express their feelings. Some of us don’t have the words, others simply find it too difficult or emotionally wearing to put their feelings across. Talking doesn’t mean you should sit down with your partner and immediately have a heart to heart on the meaning of life and death. It does, however, mean communicating more and making sure you don’t cut each other out for fear of offending or getting it wrong.
For some this may mean being more open than they have for a long while. Talking doesn’t have to be about cancer. It can be about everyday things and making sure your partner knows that you are there for them.
Just as important as talking things through, is listening to what your partner says. Sometimes people do want to let off a bit of steam or really tell you how they feel and it’s important that you make time to listen and listen well. In fact, it’s not always a skill that many of us are good at, especially if we have been in a relationship for a number of years. Make sure you pay special attention to how you are listening to your partner.
Let Others In
You may want to take the burden of caring for your loved one entirely onto your own shoulders. Don’t be afraid to let friends and family in who can help take some of that weight from you. There may be things your partner will be more willing to discuss with a close friend than with you and this shouldn’t upset you.
As a caring partner, you should also make sure that you get the help and support you need. When things get difficult or you don’t know how to react or what to do, it can help to talk to someone who is standing a little further away and can give a whole new perspective.
Emotions during this time are going to be running high. Your partner might be tearful and scared, they just as easily might be angry and use you as their target.
It can be easy to let your own emotions get in the way when things are said on the spur of the moment, but as a partner caring for someone with cancer you need to have a thicker skin. This is another reason why it’s important to have a support network in place that can give you helpful advice and encouragement.
Feelings can involve denial, anger, depression and anxiety, to name just a few and you may have to cope with a whole mix, especially in the early days after diagnosis. Recognise this is the case and try not to be too judgemental.
“The early days after finding I had cancer were a bit of a blur, right up until after the operation. My husband was keen to look on the positive side with practically everything, to such a point I thought he was trying to avoid all the issues. I guess he was scared just like me and took a while to get the hang of it.” Julie B, breast cancer survivor.
The Practical Side of Cancer
As terrible as the initial diagnosis may be, there are usually plenty of practicalities that need to be addressed at the same time. These can often be simpler to face than the emotional upheaval and will provide both you and your partner with a way of regaining some control.
Getting to Know Cancer
Most of us are aware of cancer but few of us get to know it intimately until a diagnosis is made. There are going to be quite a few things that you and your partner will want to know. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources out there to help you understand what the diseases is, how it is treated and what you can expect over the coming months.
Most clinics nowadays are far better at giving patients information about their condition than they were 10 or 20 years ago. After the initial diagnosis, it is normal in many countries for the medical staff involved to sit down with everyone involved and talk through the options available. There are also numerous online sites where you can find out additional information and support networks where you can get in contact with those who have been through cancer.
Questions that you are going to want the answers to initially will be:
- What is the cancer?
- Is there a chance that your cancer will be cured?
- What are your options for treatment?
- If you need an operation, how long will it take to recover and what are the risks?
- Once you have been through an operation, what other treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy will you need?
- What are the chances of the cancer recurring?
Taking notes and writing down questions as and when they occur to you or your partner is a good idea. The amount of information you need to absorb, especially in the first couple of weeks, as well as having to cope with all those emotions, can be overwhelming, so get into the habit of writing things down.
When doing your research on cancer, you will no doubt come across some miracle cures that purport to rid the body of various tumours. These are usually packaged with faux research that was never undertaken and lists of testimonials that have simply been made up and are aimed at people who are naturally desperate.
A lot of research and money goes into dealing with cancer nowadays and the best people to get advice and help from are the oncologists and other health professionals who deal with it on a daily basis. While a miracle cure may give you a psychological boost and make you think you are doing something, they can also impact on your condition and make it worse or reduce the effectiveness of medication.
Coping with Sudden Changes
If you need to have an operation, it will normally be planned for a couple of weeks after the initial diagnosis, once the consultation has finished, if not earlier. A lot will depend on the nature of the cancer, where it is located and how likely it is to spread.
This is obviously a very worrying period and often doesn’t give you a lot of time to think. You’ll have to arrange time off work, inform everyone who needs to know about what is happening and what changes you need to make.
For example, you may need to sleep alone in another room when you return from the hospital. You might have to arrange to be off work longer or get someone in to provide around the clock care for a few weeks after the operation.
You could have to find someone to look after your kids while your partner is hospital and you are running back and forth. It’s important to get as much of a support network in place as possible to help in this initial period when things are so fluid.
Preparing for Treatment
While an operation is a major thing, it’s not usually the be all and end all for cancer treatment. Most patients will need to undergo a period of chemotherapy or radiotherapy afterwards. This usually begins once scarring from the operation has healed and can last for anything up to six to twelve months following the operation.
For loved ones this can be just as difficult a period to get through and providing support is vital.
- There may be issues such as hair loss that is hard for your partner to cope with.
- The chemo drugs may well cause the patient to feel ill.
- They may begin to feel isolated because everyone has gone back to their ‘normal’ lives, thinking the worst is over.
- The true impact of what they have gone through may start to become more apparent, leading to feelings of anxiety and even depression that life has changed so much.
All this requires support from a caring and attentive partner and it’s important that you keep working hard to make sure that you provide the level needed. Even when someone has been declared free of cancer, there is often emotional and mental scarring that has to be overcome and worked through.
Telling Family, Friends and Others
Spreading the news that your partner has cancer can be strenuous. Particularly if you have children, how to broach the subject and how much you tell them is difficult to decide. Cancer agencies and organisations have a lot of information and advice on this but a lot will depend on the ages of your children and how much they are likely to understand.
Keeping it simple for younger children and making sure they know it has nothing to do with them is a start. It’s always a good idea if you sit down together to tell the kids, however hard this might be. Choose a time when you are not likely to be interrupted and can give your children the quality time they need to understand what is going on.
As a parent, you’ll know your children better than anyone else. You may want to practice or discuss beforehand what you want to say. You may want to start off giving them small amounts of information and gradually build on it over time. Your kids may be old enough to understand more detail.
There’s a very useful resource on the UK MacMillan Cancer website about telling children you have cancer.
Beyond your kids, you might want to keep the number of people who know about the diagnosis to a minimum, at least initially.
- Make a list of people you need to tell, particularly those who will be able to provide you with vital support.
- Work out what you are going to say to them and what you would like them to do.
- If you do feel that you can’t talk about it, finding one close friend or family member who can do it for you is an option.
- Having the same conversation over and over again to different people can be draining and upsetting so don’t feel that you have to do it all in one go.
Most cancer sufferers will tell you that they would have been unable to cope without vital support. As a partner, you can do a lot to help put that network in place, whether it’s reaching out to friends and family to assist or finding support from local groups who can give the advice and guidance that you need.
Support from Friends and Family
Some people have a wide network of friends and family, others have just a few close individuals they can call on at a time of crisis. Friends and family don’t have to take care of everything. You can use them to alleviate the pressure perhaps by running errands – picking up the kids from school while you’re at the hospital, doing the shopping or simply helping with some household chores. Accepting help is good for those who need it and those who give it. So don’t be too proud to let someone into your circle and do something for you, however small.
Cancer Support Networks
Most countries nowadays have strong cancer support networks. These can be just as useful as friends and family. You can meet and talk with people who have been through the same thing as you and learn about new treatments or ‘life hacks’ that can make things easier. This can be more important after the initial diagnosis and operation, when you begin, for example, to see the effects of chemotherapy.
Support networks will also be able to help you with difficult issues such as dealing with your finances during the recovery period.
Dealing with a Terminal Diagnosis
While many people recover from cancer and lead relatively healthy lives, it is still seen as a life-threatening disease. Dealing with a partner who has a terminal diagnosis is complex and difficult and can involve a period of prolonged grief that is hard for both sides to cope with.
The first thing you need to consider is the initial diagnosis and come to terms with your time together being cut short. The emotions at this time can be overwhelming and it will be hard for either of you to think clearly in those early days. Some people will have only a short time to come to terms with the end of their life, others may have a few years of palliative care that can often be painful and distressing.
There may well be a lot of issues to address and as a partner you can help to facilitate these. They could include:
- Are there things your partner wants to do before they become too ill?
- How do they want their end of life care to be organised?
- Do they want to stay at home or at a hospice where they can receive particular care?
- Have they made a will?
There may be unfinished business or unresolved issues that a loved one wants to take care of. This could be practical problems such as how finances are going to be shared out or more emotional ones such as mending a rift in the family before it’s too late.
As a carer, you will also need to think about how you are going to provide the level of care needed, particularly in the later stages, and what you need personally to allow you to do it.
Marie Curie produce a very good guide on making choices for end of life care and the practicalities involved.
For all its dreadful effects on you and your loved one, maintaining normality seems to be a big issue for many families visited by this disease. Cancer is life threatening but in many cases nowadays it is not a life sentence. Many, many people are diagnosed and recover thanks to the treatments available and successful outcomes are becoming more the norm than in the past.
Being able to do the things you did before and living as full and unobstructed life as possible is not only key for you and your partner’s physical health but your emotional wellbeing also.
“Talking to my dad after mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he mentioned asking her about what she wanted to do. It wasn’t about fulfilling any lifetime ambitions or doing something different. It was about returning to normal. She wanted us kids to go back home and get on with our lives. She wanted to be able to go down the shops and get the weekly groceries. Go out to dinner and enjoy a glass of wine. Sit and watch TV without being in discomfort. The boringly normal things we all take for granted.” Steve M (account from personal experience)
Planning for the Future
A diagnosis of cancer can suddenly mean that future plans are put on hold and your life together seems stalled. Of course, it can be difficult to see past the initial operation and the prospect of several months of chemotherapy. Planning for the future, whether that’s a holiday or simply next Christmas can help normalise everything and add much needed hope. It gives you and your partner something more than just medical issues to focus on.
There has been quite a lot of research that shows returning the household to normal can be beneficial to recovery. While some things are undoubtedly going to change, maintaining certain practices, such as the evening meal together or even doing the weekly shop, are all important. Cancer sufferers can feel ‘robbed’ of their normal life when they are first diagnosed and getting back to everyday activities can help restore a sense of purpose and better wellbeing.
That can be something as simple as sleeping in the same bed with you, getting the kids their breakfast in the morning or going out to see friends for a meal.
Dealing with Finances
In some parts of the world, finances are protected either by employment law or the availability of support for those families suffering from cancer. In others, losing the income from one person who is unable to work can put a big strain on the family unit. You may have to consider your partner spending a long time recovering and being kept off work, where either their income is reduced or not available at all.
It can be problematic if you have debts such as mortgage to pay and you were already struggling to make ends meet prior to the diagnosis. You will have to change the way you budget in the future, review your finances and make drastic alterations to what you spend money on. This is the time to find out what you are eligible for and get the advice and guidance you need from support groups. Each country has its own legislation and networks in place and some are better than others but make sure you do your research and get what is due.
Keeping Yourself Healthy
It can be easy to get caught up with the stresses and strains of coping with a loved one who has cancer. While most of your efforts will involve caring for them, you shouldn’t forget about keeping yourself healthy too. This includes eating well, exercising and getting a break when you need it.
Skipping meals or eating poor quality food can all impact on your health. Making sure you get a healthy diet is key for maintaining your partner’s wellbeing and your own. If you are finding yourself pushed for time then don’t be shy about asking your friends or family to make up some healthy prepared snacks and meals.
You don’t have to rush down the gym and lift weights but taking on some exercise like a good walk or a swim will keep you in decent physical condition. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels and promote better sleep patterns which are all good for you.
Taking a Break
You might want to load everything onto your shoulders but taking a break now and again can help relieve tension and clear your mind. Whether that’s a trip down to the bar with your friends or popping into work, it can all help.
Coping with Recovery
While the operation to remove a cancer and the process of treatment afterwards can all be difficult periods, so can the time when you finally reach a point when you are officially recovered. Having suffered from cancer can make your partner feel unsure about the future, even if the prognosis is now a good one. There may be a loss of confidence and anxiety when something happens that makes them think the cancer is back.
As a partner, it’s important to keep an eye on things when the world gets back to normal. That means continuing to talk about the cancer and checking that feelings are not building up without something being done about them. It’s not unusual for a patient to go through a period of depression or feeling down once the all clear has been received. Support groups and therapy can help an individual cope with this period until they are on a more certain footing.
Recovery from cancer is a long and arduous process. There is the prospect of having a lifesaving operation. The challenges that treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy bring. The notion that you are no longer indestructible. What happens to your partner and kids afterwards if you should die? The fear that your cancer might return at some point.
Providing support for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer and helping them through these dark days towards recovery is never easy. Millions of people go through the same thing every year and come out on the other side.
With the right support and treatment, cancer no longer means a death sentence for many people. The good news is that we’ve become so much better at diagnosing and treating this terrible disease that there is a lot of hope for the many sufferers who contract cancer each year.