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Advice for Spouse or Partner

Everyone responds differently to the news that they have cancer and everyone needs help in different ways. What might be helpful for one person could be irritating and invasive for another. Don’t just assume that you know what is best for your spouse in this situation. Even what they imagined would be most helpful before they were diagnosed with cancer might be quite different in reality. Ask how you can best help and listen to their response.

  • Accept practical help from others
    Sometimes this might not be easy you, but understand that allowing someone else to help is really a gift to them. A few months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of our friends was also diagnosed with cancer. Being able to help them with groceries, taking care of kids and providing someone to talk to made us feel a little less helpless and was a real blessing to us. So when I received my cancer diagnosis I realized that help from friends was something that made all of us feel better! Take a look at the lists for family members and friends (below) for some suggestions as to how people can help.
  • Find a support network for yourself.
    This could be friends who have already been through this situation, support groups for family of cancer patients, or just warm and supportive family members and friends. For my husband, talking with some friends who also had a spouse with breast cancer was really helpful. Again, a word of caution: everyone reacts differently to a diagnosis of cancer and has different needs, so filter the advice of friends as to what was helpful for their spouse through what you know of your own spouse. Also, know that it is normal to be angry that this has happened to someone you love. Make sure that your loved one doesn’t feel that you are angry with her, since she may already be feeling “guilty” that she got cancer. Find an outlet for your anger so that it doesn’t build up, talk to friends, a support group or a counselor. Online resources include the Cancer Hope Network
  • Listen!
    Although your natural inclination may be to try to “fix” everything, your ability to listen while your spouse talks about her feelings, fears and hopes and your validation of those feelings is one of the biggest gifts you can give.
  • Accompany her to doctor’s appointments as much as possible.
    If you can’t be there make sure that she has a close friend or family member there. Having someone with you is important both for moral support and comfort but also to help remember what was discussed and also possibly to drive depending on where she is relative to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
  • Give hugs and cuddles!
    Hold hands, stroke her face, put your arms around her while watching a movie. Physical contact is really important. Your spouse needs to know that their diagnosis does not affect your love and affection for them. Talk about sexual intimacy. Your spouse will want to know that she is still desirable to you, but be sensitive and patient with how diagnosis and treatment affects your sexual intimacy. The stress of their diagnosis, pain from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation related fatigue as well as possible chemo-induced menopause can all affect sexual intimacy in the short-term, so be patient. Try some of the suggestions from the following links.
  • Give a foot rub, hand massage or rub her scalp (especially if she has lost her hair!).
    Touch is really therapeutic. I loved that my husband did all these things and the fact that he nightly rubbed oil into my bald head (it was a special recipe intended to moisturize and promote hair growth); it told me that the fact that I had no hair did not bother him, that he loved me anyway. Having said that, for some people being touched too much can be too invasive at this sensitive time, so do check.
  • Write little notes, especially if you find it hard to say what you feel.
    A simple “I love you” means everything.
  • Arrange for help with caring for the family so that your spouse won’t worry.
    Enlist the help of friends, family, church members etc.
  • Don’t forget romance.
    She may not be well enough to go out for dinner a lot of the time, but you can make dinner, put flowers on the table, light candles and pretend that you are on a date. It is a huge morale booster to continue to have romantic time together.
  • Don’t be too thin-skinned.
    What your loved one is going through is very hard. They will have many difficult days both physically and emotionally and may not always behave like a model spouse, etc. Know that they are working through the situation to the best of their ability and doing what they need to do to get through it.
  • Field questions and provide information to others.
    Having cancer and being treated for it is tiring. While talking to a few people is helpful, talking to everyone who wants to know how you are doing is tiring. There are a number of web sites, such as CaringBridge, where you can post updates on how your loved one is doing and others can leave messages. Setting this up and maintaining this for your loved one is a great help. Alternatively, updates on Facebook or an individual blog site are also great. These can also be useful when needing help; you can post a list of ways people could help. Fielding calls and providing information can also be tiring for you, so choosing one friend to give updates to who can then field calls and/or update a web site for the family can also be a great solution.