I have heard many stories throughout the years of how people learned about their cancer diagnosis. Some learned about it unexpectedly, after going into the emergency room for unexplained symptoms and the doctors finding a suspicious lump that led to a cascade of tests and being told, “It’s cancer”. Some received a call or found out by seeing their test results online or found out in the doctor’s office. Some received it during pivotal moments in their lives such as in the days that followed bringing a new baby home or weeks after their retirement.

No matter when and how they learned about the diagnosis, one thing is clear: it’s often not what they expected, and it changes everything. Cancer is not a singular event though. It comes with doctor’s appointments, scans, surgeries, treatments, side effects and it brings up a lot of emotions and fears. It often means stepping away from work, changes in routine, coping with difficult side effects and having hard conversations with their kids and their families that they never expected to have. This is likely not what you expected either.

When your partner is facing cancer, you may be feeling exhausted, trying to find a balance between providing care, working, juggling family life and creating time for yourself. You may be trying to cope with a sense of uncertainty on the disease your spouse is facing and the road ahead. You may find yourself taking on new roles within the family system and caring for your partner when they are ill. You may be coming into this while also juggling other difficult life situations. Emotions that can come up may include disbelief and denial, grief, fear and anxiety, anger, guilt and feelings of helplessness.

This is a difficult period for both of you. You’re probably both feeling a range of emotions and that can sometimes mean that you or your spouse may not be communicating like you used to and from time to time you may both lose your patience and say things you don’t mean.

It is normal to miss the way things used to be in your relationship or how life used to be before cancer. It can be the little things you miss like the routines you had in the morning with a spouse before work or the bigger things like the impact cancer can have on your sex life.

For some couples, facing cancer can bring them closer together, while for others it can do the opposite. Communication is key. Talk to your partner and try to understand what they’re feeling and experiencing and where they’re coming from. What you’re going through is hard. Both of you can greatly benefit from taking time for yourself to do things that you enjoy and from planning time to spend together to reconnect, where you don’t talk about cancer.

Here are just a few tips on some of the other things you can do to support your partner:

• Find out more about the cancer experience from their perspective and validate their experience, instead of trying to “fix it” for them. While you are both impacted and going through this together, no one can truly understand what someone is going through if they are not them. It’s hard to know what the right thing to say is. The truth is that the best thing you can do is really be there with them, make sure they feel heard and validated in their experience and allow them a space to verbalize it and find their own answers. This is what people feel – when you’re really with them.

• Take time to read and to look at resources that help you understand the cancer patient’s experience. A phenomenal book for family, friends and health care providers is “Help me live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know” by Lori Hope. There are also numerous articles that can help you gain a new perspective on what it’s like to be living with cancer. Many cancer patients talk about cancer-related fatigue and brain fog and may experience these side effects for a while after treatment. Find out more on what this is like for them by doing research. Many people also deal with fear of cancer recurrence. You may be coping with this as well, as their partner. That fear is very common among people who have gone through cancer treatment. However, if it is impacting their daily functioning and their well-being, making it difficult to enjoy life and make plans for the future, it would be worth reaching out for counselling.

• Ask them how you can help and what they need from you. Sometimes we assume what our loved ones want and need from us. This can lead to misunderstandings. Ask your partner how you can help and what they need and ensure that you are not taking on tasks that they would rather do themselves.

• Get support for yourself too. Being a caregiver can be incredibly challenging. Book a counselling appointment today by clicking the button on the right side of the screen. You don’t need to go through this alone.

Melina Ladouceur

Looking for a therapist?

Melina Ladouceur is a registered social worker and practicing psychotherapist who offers individual counselling and is currently accepting new clients.