Cancer and Relationships: Overcoming the Many Challenges

By Mélina Ladouceur on January 22 / 2020

[Cancer, Cancer Coaching, Caregivers, Families]Comments

As a Cancer Coach, I get to witness something truly incredible happening each time I meet with my clients. In the midst of one of one of the most challenging experiences of their lives, they are often able to summon a special type of courage that they may not even realize they possess.

Cancer is scary. I see it every day in the eyes of patients, caregivers and their families; they are unsure of what to expect, and they wonder what life will look like going forward. Cancer often means more time spent at medical appointments, side effects that can affect their quality of life, and overall, an experience that can change us and the relationships we have with ourselves and those closest to us.

Many spouses and partners often wonder what they could possibly say or do to help. Many reach out for Cancer Coaching for help building up their confidence in supporting their spouse. It can be extremely hard to know what to say when the person you love is experiencing something so difficult and life changing.

For couples who are facing cancer, there are often changes in relationship dynamics and the roles and responsibilities that each person has in the relationship. Patients can face physical challenges like treatment side effects, and may experience a wide range of emotions, like grieving the loss of “how things used to be.” They may look at their dreams and hopes for the present or future and think, “I’m not where I thought I’d be”. Unfortunately, we see many newlyweds, new parents, retirees, or couples who are entering a new stage in their lives be suddenly hit by a cancer diagnosis, and they are left to wonder, “how can we get through this together?” Is it possible to come out on the other side even stronger and more connected?

The answer is yes, it is very possible to grow together through a challenging situation like cancer. Here are a few of the tools and strategies I have seen help many of my clients over the years.

Communicate openly. Communication is vital in all our relationships, but sometimes when someone is facing cancer, things remain unsaid. Sometimes patients are worried they’ll appear selfish, or they’re too afraid to bring up a particularly challenging topic; spouses may not openly admit that they’re scared or angry about what’s happening, and instead may express it through comments or behaviour.

An example of miscommunication that was once shared with me involves a couple where the wife was undergoing cancer treatment, and her partner stopped being intimate with her out of fear that she wouldn’t want to since she wasn’t feeling well. Despite the partner’s good intentions, the wife ended up quietly thinking that her spouse no longer found her desirable after her breast cancer surgery. As you can see, when we don’t communicate openly we miss opportunities to gain a better understanding of what our spouse is feeling and what they need from us.

Find time to do the things you love. It may not be easy to find the time and energy for regular “date nights” during cancer treatment, but spending quality time together doing things you both enjoy can help you stay connected and act as a great escape from the heavier moments. Your dates may start to look a bit different, so don’t be afraid to be creative: carve out a bit of time for just the two of you, and look for things that suit your interests and energy levels (even if it means staying home and watching a movie!)

Remember how you’ve coped together in the past. Many couples have strong coping and problem-solving skills that they can draw upon for any challenge, possibly without even realizing it. Take a moment to look back and think about how you have gotten through difficult life situations as a couple in the past: how did you manage to keep your relationship strong, and make your personal needs and your partner’s needs a priority? Whether you’ve been affected by job loss, a miscarriage or something else entirely, we’ve all faced difficult times, and it can help to be curious about what strategies you and your partner have previously used to get through your hardships and bounce back.

Make a plan and involve your support network. Sometimes spouses have a tendency to take on everything when their partner is in need. However, it can be quite overwhelming for just one person to handle all the meals, appointments, household chores, childcare, errands and other responsibilities. This can easily lead to burnout, and can certainly affect the relationship. Instead, consider planning in advance for upcoming treatments, and think of a way for others in the family and within your extended support network to help out and work together.

Remain intimate. Intimacy is more than just sex. The four dimensions of intimacy include physical, conversational, emotional and shared interests. Make sure you are continuing to focus on your relationship and communicating openly, and keep the parts of your relationship alive that matter most to you. Do whatever feels right to you and your partner, and what you feel comfortable with: for example, if you are experiencing sexual side effects and it’s important for you to address them, mention the challenges you are having to a healthcare professional like your primary care provider or your oncologist. Ask about your specific concerns, and anything else you want to know about the impact cancer might have on your sexuality. It may also be helpful to seek out a relationship counsellor or a sex therapist.

Get help if you need it. There is no need to face your challenges alone. It can take a bit of courage at first, but talking to a counsellor or therapist can be a great step in working through difficult emotions that you may be feeling, or in helping to keep a relationship strong when life has thrown you a huge curve ball. It’s important to take care of yourself through this process and address the feelings that may be coming up, as well as the way cancer can impact your self-esteem, body image, and your view of the future. Couples may also wish to seek out couples counselling to ensure they are communicating well and working through their challenges together.

If at any time you are concerned about the way cancer may be impacting your relationship, I invite you to speak to those on your care team about your needs. You are also always welcome to visit to sign up for Cancer Coaching, where your Coach can help you create a plan to focus on what matters to you, and to help get you from where you are right now to where you want to be in the future.

Wishing you all the best,

Melina Ladouceur
Cancer Coach, Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation

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