- Everyone reacts differently: A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments impact people differently. Some people might want to talk about how they feel whilst others may close off from those they love. Take cues from your spouse about how you can support them.
- Communication is key: It’s important that you and your spouse talk to one another about how you feel, what you both need and any points of tension to avoid resentment and ensure you both get the right support.
- Remember to look after yourself too: Caring for a loved one with cancer can be emotionally and physically draining. Make sure you take time for yourself at regular intervals where you can do things you enjoy and have an opportunity to rest.
When your husband, wife or partner gets diagnosed with cancer it can be a difficult time for you both. Whilst they are the one with the disease, it is something that affects you both in many ways. You are likely to share worries about what it means for your future and encounter disruptions to your normal life together as your spouse undergoes treatment.
Your relationship and its dynamics may change. Your spouse may feel differently about themselves, and in processing their thoughts and emotions, they may treat you differently to how they did before. You may also find yourself behaving differently.
Here Reta Sowton, a cancer nurse specialist at Perci, shares how you can support your spouse, understand changes that may occur and look after your own wellbeing following their cancer diagnosis.
How to support your partner with cancer
Following a cancer diagnosis, it’s understandable that you want to know what you can do to support your husband or wife, and how you can best face the next steps together. The best thing you can do is talk to one another, but the sections below will give you a good starting point for how to support your spouse:
Understand their emotions
It’s likely to be an emotional time for both of you and your wider family but you may not always have the same emotions at the same time. People respond very differently to a cancer diagnosis so it’s helpful to not assume you know how they feel.
Fear, anger, sadness, guilt, and frustration, amongst others, are all valid emotions that your spouse might feel. They will likely be experiencing an emotional rollercoaster, and this might manifest itself as turbulent and unpredictable outward reactions.
If your spouse is open to discussing how they feel, be prepared to listen but try not to ‘fix’ anything or compare their experience to someone else’s. If they don’t want to talk about their thoughts, respect their privacy and just let them know you are there if they change their mind.
Be patient with different behaviours
If your wife or husband has cancer and is pushing you away, you’re not alone. Sometimes people lash out or push away those closest to them. If they are angry or resentful about what has happened to them, you may get the brunt of this. At times it may feel as if your spouse hates you but try not to take it personally; outbursts, a short temper and behaviour changes are a natural reaction to processing such emotions.
It’s also normal if your husband or wife starts doing things or not doing things that they did or didn’t do before. Again, this could be a reaction to the emotions they are processing.
How to act and respond
Be yourself and try to maintain the same balance of relationship that you had before your spouse’s cancer diagnosis. Respond to queues from your husband or wife about what they need as it may change depending on their emotions or what stage they are at of their diagnosis/treatment.
Try not to invalidate how they are feeling; they are more likely to open up to you if they know they can be truthful. Let them know that you have no expectations so that you can both change and adapt to the situation authentically.
Impact on your sexual relationship
Sex and intimacy can change after a cancer diagnosis. Cancer treatments can cause a loss of libido, menopause, or pain or difficulty in having intercourse. Physical and emotional changes can also affect your spouse’s body image, and fears and depression may put them off having sex altogether.
Find different ways of being physical and intimate with your spouse. Maybe try holding hands when you watch TV together or give them a foot rub to help them relax. You can also show affection with other actions such as buying them flowers or cooking their favourite meal. Spending time together and talking openly and honestly will also help you feel connected.
Talk to your clinical team as they can suggest many things that can help. Also, consider professional help from psychosexual therapists who can guide you through and help you manage the consequences of cancer treatment.
It is important to continue to talk with each other and don’t assume you know what one another is thinking. How you both feel, what your needs are, and what is working and what is not working for both of you are topics that are worth discussing as and when they come up.
Even when your spouse doesn’t feel like talking, just let them know that you are there for them. Think about what support you can give them and what time you can commit to their needs and then let them know what you can help with. It might be that all they want is your company, but you won’t know unless you talk to them.
Face it together
It can be reassuring to both of you to be united in the face of your spouse’s diagnosis. Even if your roles change or the dynamic of your relationship shifts somewhat, maintaining your respect for one another and making decisions together can provide you both with strength and comfort.
It might be that you attend all your spouse’s appointments so that you are both fully informed and can ask questions or that you tell your family about your spouse’s diagnosis together, face to face.
Talk to one another about the inevitable changes to your life as well as the ways you can adapt your roles and routine to make things work best for you both.
Get support for your mental health and coping with your emotions
It can be easy to only focus on your spouse and their needs but it’s important to look after yourself as well. If you are getting tired or overwhelmed, it’s ok to take some time out.
If you are your spouse’s main carer, accept offers of help and support from others or seek out professional help if you need to. Family members may be able to help with practical tasks such as food shopping or household chores, for example.
There is a range of cancer support charities and other organisations that can also give you information about help you can access (see our guide to where to get support for carers of cancer patients).
If you need emotional or mental health support, don’t be afraid of talking to trusted family members, your GP, a clinical nurse specialist, or a counsellor. It can also be helpful to tell your employer that your spouse has cancer so that they can help support you at work.
Here at Perci, our cancer specialists are also here to help. Ask your employer to find out how Perci Health can help them to support you and others impacted by cancer.