Cancer places tremendous burden on relationships

Your partner describes feeling “off” – he/she goes for a routine check-up and you both think nothing of it. However, the dreaded moment comes when the doctor shares concerns, recommends additional testing, and you both find out your partner is dealing with a significant medical diagnosis. Life as you know it has changed and you are both facing new challenges, fears, decisions, and you may not know how to talk about it.

Couples Facing Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1,806,590 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2020. The rate of new cases of cancer (cancer incidence) is 442.4 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2013–2017 cases).

A specific field was created to address how medical issues intertwine with mental health. This field is called Medical Family Therapy (MedFT). Couples’ experiences of cancer can be highly interdependent, and their mental and physical health outcomes are often linked. For example, the higher level of cancer-related distress in one partner can predict the higher level of cancer-related distress in the other partner. A medical diagnosis not only impacts one person, but also the other, and ultimately their relationship.

When one partner gets a medical diagnosis, couples therapy is a necessary resource.

Going through a medical diagnosis is not easy for anyone and it can especially be challenging for a relationship. Oftentimes the person with the diagnosis feels like they are a burden or that all the attention might be on them. Patients must adjust to the role changes, physical side effects, distress, and functional disability associated with a medical diagnosis and its treatment. Similarly, their partners must confront the potential loss of the diagnosed partner’s capabilities, attention, while providing emotional and sometimes physical support. The partner is considered the invisible patient – still facing anxiety, ambiguity, and loss. A common belief for the invisible patient is feeling like it’s not their right to discuss or express their own feelings – so they tend to downplay, ignore, or withdraw to, from their perspective, lessen the stress on their partner who is dealing with the medical issue.

Despite having a medical diagnosis, there are effective approaches for couples to adjust and to cultivate a healthy connection during a very intense and stressful time.

3 ways to strengthen your relationship in the face of a medical diagnosis

We know the difficulty medical diagnoses and changes in the relationship can have on you and your partner. We’re sharing 3 ways to increase connection with your partner and guide your communication while facing a medical diagnosis.

First, ask questions specific to the diagnosis – While it may be difficult to answer these questions, it is worth taking time to think through them. What we’ve learned is cancer-related communication can reduce the cancer-related distress that you experience.

  • What did we hear the doctor and medical team say?
  • How I understand the treatment plan is this….
  • Do either of us feel like we’re going through this alone?
  • What health related changes do we need to discuss?
  • What is the scariest part of this new diagnosis?

Second, talk more – this time turn your attention on your own experience and tune into your emotions. Each of you has an experience – both are valid and real for each of you. Take turns allowing each of you to talk about how cancer is impacting you (e.g., side effects, lifestyle adjustments) and the impact cancer has on your feelings (e.g., anxiety, worry). We’ve found a great emotion wheel to help you name how you might feel.

For example, the invisible patient/partner might say, “I notice there are times I don’t know what to say or I hold back sharing something great that happened in my day because I know you are going through so much and you aren’t feeling well. I miss the lightness life had before the diagnosis and when I think about all we’re going through, I feel a heaviness…I feel sad and helpless.”

For example, the cancer patient/partner might say, “One surprising side effect is the displeasure I have towards food. I’ve always loved food – we planned vacations around food, we have special meals reserved for holidays…and this treatment has made food something I don’t look forward to. I don’t have an appetite – I know I have to eat or I’ll get even more sick, but when I do, nothing tastes good, not even my favorite meals and I know you have been cooking and ordering things I love. I feel discouraged and worried that I’ll never like to eat the same way again.”

Third, develop a mindfulness or meditation practice. There are a multitude of apps available to help guide you – a couple of our favorites are Headspace and HeartMath. You can do it individually or together.

It’s important to regularly check in with your partner to discuss ongoing challenges, share your evolving feelings, and strengthen your connection during this difficult time.

If you find it challenging to discuss these questions, like you don’t even know where to start, or you don’t know how to share how you feel, we can help you. We help couples ask and answer tough questions in a supportive and safe environment.

Why choose a MedFT trained therapist?

The benefit of a MedFT trained therapist is their distinct training in helping couples and families cope with medical diagnoses, such as diabetes, cancer, and ALS, and their ability to create specific interventions with greater awareness of how those diagnoses may impact both the individual and their relationships. Medical family therapists work with couples facing a medical diagnosis, such as cancer, to help them navigate the additional emotional challenges placed on their romantic relationship.

Our clinician, Afarin, has extensive experience with couples facing medical diagnoses. She recently published her research on couples facing cancer in The American Journal of Family Therapy. She is Gottman Level 1, 2, and 3 trained, provides free online workshops and is bilingual (Farsi). She also teaches in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Alliant International University.

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