How to Care For Your Partner With Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma

The best ways to support your partner during their treatment
cancer, cancer care, cancer diagnosis, cancer coping strategies, lymphoma, diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

A cancer diagnosis can be shocking and upsetting not just for the person receiving the diagnosis, but also for their loved ones, especially their partners. It can be hard to process the news at first and difficult to reconcile the information being given.

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As the treatment journey begins, there are ways that partners can take on the role of both supporter and caregiver for their loved one with cancer. Performing those roles can be an essential source of support for those undergoing treatment — as long as the caregiver remembers to take care of themselves, too. 

Oncology social worker Jane Dabney, LISW-S, OSW-C, offers ways you can support your partner after they receive a diffuse large B-cell lymphoma diagnosis.

What questions should you ask the doctor about your partner’s diagnosis?

When receiving the diagnosis, Dabney says it’s important for you, as the partner, to ask for information about what’s to come, especially as a supplement to any questions your loved one might have. This can include:

  • The type of cancer involved.
  • Treatment options.
  • The risks and benefits of each treatment option.
  • A timeline for treatment.
  • Side effects of treatment.
  • How you can assist with the side effects of treatment at home.
  • Will there be specific caregiver duties, like injections or changing dressings?

“It’s always good to jot down questions when you think of them and take them with you to appointments,” says Dabney. “We find that during those early days of the diagnosis, both the patient and their partner may have trouble sleeping. This is sometimes because it can be difficult to shut their mind off, or they can be feeling overwhelmed and confused about what next steps to take.” Keeping a journal at your bedside for those questions guarantees you won’t forget them in the morning.

Making sure you’re on the same page as your partner with questions and concerns is another important aspect of treatment. Talking about the questions you each have and sharing questions helps communication with their care team go smoothly.

What emotional support will those with a diagnosis need from their partners?

“One of the biggest things to do is to listen and be present,” says Dabney. “Listen to what their feelings are. Collaborate with them on how they want to approach the next steps in the treatment plan.”

Each person digests the news differently, and that can go for you and your partner. Be sure to work together on when to begin telling family and friends about the diagnosis and expanding your support network. “Some like to process the news before they share it with others, while some like to tell family right away, before they know the total treatment plan,” Dabney notes. “Be willing to work together and respect your partner’s preferences.”

How can a partner support their loved one during the treatment process? 

As the treatment process begins, there are ways that partners can continue to help. Whether that’s being an advocate for their loved one or just taking a moment for themselves, Dabney offers some suggestions to assist someone throughout the treatment process.

Be a (polite) gatekeeper

When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, sometimes, the outpouring of support can be almost overwhelming. Friends and family might stop by or reach out to see what they can do or ask to visit. In these instances, Dabney says the caregiver should politely serve as a gatekeeper, making sure both of you aren’t feeling too overwhelmed with visitors.

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“People generally mean well when they offer help or want to visit,” Dabney says. If it’s not a good time,  “you can politely tell them neither you nor your partner is available for a visit.” It can also be helpful to have a list of items or tasks ready and offer that list to those who wish to help.

Be an advocate

Dabney also says you can be a politely assertive advocate for your partner when dealing with their care team throughout treatment. “If your partner has needs that you feel aren’t being met, talk to the care team to make sure your concerns are heard.”

Expect the unexpected

It’s not unusual, says Dabney, for there to be some unexpected road bumps along the way. “Sometimes, you might come in for an appointment or treatment and when blood is drawn for lab work, it’s discovered your partner needs a transfusion. Now you’re here longer than you originally thought you’d be.”

Learning to be flexible is a key part of treatment. Having a backup plan to care for children and pets, etc., can be helpful in these situations. Being able to rely on your support system in these instances can be a tremendous benefit.

Accept what you can — and can’t — control

“Learn to focus on the things you can control versus what you can’t control,” advises Dabney. Because these twists and turns in treatment can throw you off, it’s important to try to focus on things you can still do.

“You can’t control the diagnosis or what the treatment regimen is going to be,” she continues. “But you can choose how you’re going to approach the treatment appointments. You can control taking care of yourself, and making decisions of who you ask for help and support. And you can take charge of building a support network of people to whom you can delegate tasks.”

Let your partner have agency

While so much of your time as a caregiver is about aiding your partner, it’s also important to acknowledge they have the right to make their own decisions. Whether it’s about the type of treatment, support network or getting a second opinion, Dabney says it’s important to partner with your loved one and respect their thoughts and perspectives. 

Related to this is offering choices to your partner. “Simple things like giving them food choices, asking them if they want to see visitors or even just sit outside can help them feel like they have some control over their situation,” says Dabney.

It’s also important to remember to help with tasks your partner isn’t able to do, and encourage them to continue to do the things they can, and want, to do for themselves. Chores like paying bills or cooking meals are some examples. “Offer assistance but don’t take away the option from them unless they ask,” says Dabney.

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Caregiver self-care

While the idea of caregivers giving themselves time for their own self-care may not be top of mind during this period, Dabney recognizes how essential it is to be able to remain helpful to their partner. “We encourage caregivers to make sure they’re providing good self-care to themselves. If they don’t recharge their own batteries, they won’t be able to care for someone else,” she notes.

From the unexpected during treatment to other sacrifices that have to be made — as the caregiver, you can experience stress, too. Allowing others to support you is essential.

“Having negative emotions — crying and being upset — is not always a bad thing. Staying positive all the time isn’t a must,” Dabney stresses. “You can feel what you feel. If you stay down in the dumps and overwhelmed for days, then you need to seek help and talk about it. But otherwise, it’s all part of the process for patient and caregiver.”

Self-care is also about asking for help to share the load. Some things you can do to ensure your self-care include:

  • Eating properly.
  • Getting good rest.
  • Reaching out to a support system of people who can be of help.
  • Allowing others to help with daily tasks like cooking, grocery shopping or laundry.
  • Keeping a list with logistical information like names, phone numbers and instructions.
  • Journaling your feelings.

One additional task a caregiver can do that helps them and their partner is a more streamlined way of informing loved ones about the continuing treatment. Dabney suggests using a website like CaringBridge to provide updates to everyone at once, so you don’t have to contact each friend and family member individually.

Getting support from the care team can also help in terms of finding resources you can rely on, whether it’s assistance with tasks or simply finding support groups for you or your partner. The oncology social worker is an essential part of the team and can help caregivers with supportive counseling, coping techniques and finding resources.

“Caregivers who take time for themselves and care for themselves have more energy to continue caregiving for the long haul,” Dabney says. “And give yourself a break. You may make mistakes or not do what you intended but acknowledge you’re doing the best you can.”

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