Contributor: Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C
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One of the most frequent – and touching – questions we get on the Cancer Answer Line is from people whose spouses or partners have been newly diagnosed with cancer. They want to know how they can help and support their spouse through this life-changing diagnosis and the ensuing treatment.
If this is you, you may feel completely unprepared to help your spouse or partner. But know that you are in a position to make an enormous impact on your spouse’s experience of treatment and recovery. It may feel like an immense responsibility, but it also is a tremendous opportunity to support and safeguard your loved one as much as possible.
Also know that people often tell us that caring for someone who is seriously ill is a deeply profound, gratifying and emotionally intimate experience, one that can strengthen your relationship and bring you closer.
Here are some suggestions for how you can help your spouse or partner move through a cancer diagnosis and treatment:
Communicate from the very start and throughout the entire experience. Often, we don’t ask people what they need or want. At the same time, we don’t express what we need either.
Make a pact with your spouse or partner. Say you will do your best to always be honest and open, and ask for the same in return. Agreeing at the beginning to communicate openly sets the stage for both of you to feel more comfortable sharing your feelings in the future.
Don’t be afraid to show your feelings. Communicate that you are scared as well.
Help your spouse or partner get over the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis. Consider putting other plans on hold while you both process what’s happening. You may want to spend time alone together to talk about your feelings and to make some decisions. Ask: How can I help you without taking away from you.
During this time you could plan for child care, finances, time off from work or household duties. Offers to help will come in from friends and family. Brainstorm about how to use this social network so you and your spouse can focus on treatment. Roles will alter. You may have to do some things you didn’t do before. Be sure to cut yourself some slack on that.
Another important initial topic for discussion is how to communicate the diagnosis and other news to family, friends and, possibly, co-workers. Some cancer patients find it stressful to break the news or talk about their illness to all but their closest friends or family members. Ask your spouse or partner if you can help tell the news to others. And volunteer as your spouse’s gatekeeper to control the flow of visitors and phone calls. Consider signing up with a resource such as the Caring Bridge, which can serve as an information clearinghouse.
This is one of those times where people reassess spirituality. Be prepared to have those discussions or explore the topic.
Listen and give your loved one the space to react and reflect. It’s a very human response to try to ‘fix’ things when your loved one talks about feeling scared, angry or sad. Most of the time, however, the best thing you can do is simply listen. Let your loved one experience and articulate whatever emotion he or she may feel. Let your spouse scream or cry or pound the walls. But resist the thought that your spouse or partner’s emotions are aimed at you. Ask: Do you need me right now?
Make sure you take care of yourself. Devoting time to do things that give you a break from caregiving will restore your soul and maintain your health. Get your hair done. See a funny movie. Play a game of golf or tennis. Invite your grandchildren over for a visit. It’s important to keep a sense of humor and laugh when you can. Know that it’s OK to enjoy life.
Try to maintain your routines – everything doesn’t have to focus on the cancer. The patient needs a break from disease as well.
Manage the logistics of treatment. Cancer treatment is daunting. You can help your spouse immensely by taking over tasks such as scheduling appointments, calling for test results, dropping off or picking up prescriptions, shopping for comfort items or accompanying your spouse on doctor visits and being an active participant in the appointment.
Your spouse will undergo a steep learning curve after a cancer diagnosis. You can help by learning all you can about the disease and its treatment along with your spouse. You also can seek advice from others who have gone through the same thing. And if you have young children, find resources to help you communicate with them.