Written by Bridget Shirvell
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Lea Ann Biafora
Learning your partner has cancer can render you speechless. The moment you hear the news, a thousand thoughts may fly through your mind, each scarier than the last.
"No matter the severity, a cancer diagnosis forces us to examine our mortality,” said Leslyn Kantner, a psychotherapist at Harmony Counseling with firsthand experience: She cared for a partner dying from cancer. “For people facing terminal illness, we experience 'anticipatory' grief.”
You may want to take the cancer away from them and do whatever you can to stop its spread, and that’s only natural—but you have no control over their diagnosis. What you do have control over is how to support someone with cancer. While the tangible elements of care—such as taking on more household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning or driving your partner to and from appointments—are easier to manage, the emotional pieces are often much harder to navigate.
"Unfortunately, most people don't know how to be good caregivers to a cancer patient, because when you haven't been through it, you don't know what to expect,” said breast cancer survivor Sara Olsher, who says her boyfriend and her mom seemed to do everything right during what was the worst time of her life. “[B]ut if you're lucky, this will make your relationship stronger."
Here are five tips on how to give cancer support to both your partner and yourself through a cancer diagnosis.
Keep active, direct communication flowing
No matter how good we think we are at communication, it can be particularly challenging when supporting someone with cancer. Don't assume anything; ask your partner how you can assist them.
"It's true that we, as patients, need to learn to ask for help,” said Olsher. “But it's also true that coming up with ways other people can help is a lot of emotional labor for someone who's already exhausted.”
While every couple has a different communication style, it's essential to set aside time daily to check in about how you're both feeling, and at least weekly to go through plans for the concrete things that need to happen, such as household tasks and medical appointments.
Be a team
Only one of you is sick, but both of you are facing the realities of cancer. Teamwork is required to get through this difficult period together. Have an open and direct conversation about what decisions you'll make together, what appointments you'll go to together, and what you each will handle on your own.
A few points to establish early on are:
- What roles you'll each take in medical decisions
- Division of labor (both in terms of medical responsibilities and managing the household)
- What information you’ll share with your children (if you have them)
- What type of support you'll be looking for from relatives and friends; and how to reach out for that support
All of this conversation will help you create a plan for how to support each other. Of course, these things may change throughout treatment, so be sure to check back in on these points often.
Date your partner
Don’t forget to go on dates together! Cancer doesn’t have to take away the fun in a relationship—you’re both still human beings who need connection. Romantic atmosphere is a powerful medicine that can help unify you through your cancer journey.
If your treatment plan allows (and after you’ve been vaccinated), arrange a mini-vacation somewhere both of you have longed to visit.
"It's really easy to get depressed, so always having something to look forward to is essential," said Olsher.
Even if you can't get away, plan a short outing, a social date with other couples, or simply take a short walk together. You’re learning how to support someone with cancer, and they’re learning how to support you too; but you deserve a break from learning.
It's hard to explain how physically and mentally draining it is to be sick. There are days when the mere thought of putting on socks can make you want to take a nap. Listen to your partner when they say they need a Netflix-and-sweatpants day, or when they say they're up for a short walk, or when they have the energy for a more extensive outing.
"Things that are exhausting one day might not be exhausting the next,” Olsher highlighted. “If [your partner] shoots down an idea you have, try not to take it personally. It might be a good idea on a different day.”
And while it may seem selfish, you need to realize that even though you're not sick, this is an exhausting time for you as well. Supporting someone with cancer isn’t easy.
"I always tell people that my first two phone calls were to my GP for some pharmaceutical help and my therapist [to book] a few weekly sessions," said Kantner. "If we want to be the flashlight and support someone, we have to have fully charged batteries.”
If you’re starting to feel burned out, implement boundaries and take the time you need to restore yourself so you can continue to care for your partner. Consider setting aside parts of the day to relax alone by reading, napping, going for a walk, or engaging in another activity that relaxes you. What you're doing isn't easy, but you can make it easier on yourself by practicing self-care while cancer caregiving.
"With a focus on my own self-care, I was able to support my partner's needs," said Kanter. "The key was moving past my own fear about losing him and listening to what he wanted and needed as he went through his own emotional and physical challenges."
Manage the logistics of visits and communication from friends and family
Friends and neighbors all want to do something, and unless you manage the logistics of their visits, communication, and help, you're going to end up with a lot of food. Hopefully, you've established what type of cancer support you want and how you're going to ask for it when you need it, but one of the best things you can do as a partner is manage the logistics of getting that support.
We all have different levels of comfort regarding privacy, and you should respect what your partner wants to share and with whom. However, it’s OK to encourage your loved one to share their diagnosis with the people they trust, and to gently remind the people your partner shared their diagnosis with to reach out.
“My hardest time was during the holidays, when people got busy, and my caregivers and I didn't see anyone but each other for weeks,” said Olsher. “If you can call people to remind them to call … it would make a big difference. People have busy lives and don't realize that on chemo, the days drag on for ages.”
This is also a good time to let friends and family know not to take it personally if they don’t receive a response—you’re all exhausted, after all. While you’re encouraging people to reach out with messages, don’t be afraid to ask for any support you need, whether it be meal trains, childcare, or someone to talk to.