A cancer diagnosis poses a unique set of challenges to a marriage or long-term partnership. Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, shares seven ways to strengthen your union during cancer treatment, whether you have cancer or are a caregiver.
1. Keep the lines of communication open
While it can be difficult to be vulnerable, being open and honest will give you clarity about each other's needs.
"Each person responds to cancer in his or her own way," says Garvey. "Let your spouse know how things are from your perspective."
2. Practice self-care
If you are the caregiver, one of the most loving things you can do is practice self-care.
"Cancer is a marathon. It is not something that has a quick fix," she says. "Take time for yourself. You may feel guilty, but the person with cancer will feel less guilty when you take care of yourself. When neither partner is practicing self-care, the relationship will suffer."
3. Ask what your partner needs
"Ask what your partner needs instead of assuming and doing everything for them," says Garvey.
You may start unloading the dishwasher every day without being asked, but the person with cancer may prefer to do this task if it is one of his or her normal chores.
Instead, ask, "How can I be supportive and what would that look like?"
4. Address the potential challenges of physical intimacy
"The side effects and physical changes from treatment can take a toll on marriages," says Garvey. "Many people say they have a hard time being intimate because of the side effects from a drug or because their spouse saw them throw up and they don't feel attractive or desirable."
Practicing good self-care can help you feel more attractive during treatment.
"Caregivers often tell me they don't want to initiate intimacy with their spouse because they worry that they aren't feeling well enough or that they are too fragile," she says. "Talking about your concerns is the most important thing to do."
Even if you are not able to be physically intimate, you can maintain your bond with other forms of physical touch (such as hugging or cuddling), honest conversations and regular date nights.
5. Attend couples counseling or join a support group
Consider making an appointment with a marriage counselor early in the cancer journey. A counselor can help your establish strong communication skills and recognize potential challenges that may arise during treatment and recovery.
You can also join a support group to hear how other couples deal with cancer.
"Some people believe they 'shouldn't need' marriage counseling because they had a good relationship before cancer," says Garvey. "However, there is nothing normal about cancer and while you are taking the journey with your spouse, it is okay to seek extra support."
6. Date your spouse
"Sometimes cancer can take over a relationship, so it is important to set aside quality time to date your spouse," she says. "During each date, take a break from talking about cancer. Instead, share your hopes and dreams. Get to know your partner. This can be transformative in your relationship."
What counts as a date? Do something you would have done early in your relationship, such as going to the movies, trying a new restaurant, going for a walk on a nearby trail or visiting a local attraction in your town.
7. Express gratitude
"People have told me having cancer can feel like a full-time job and they feel like they aren't helping their loved ones, especially if they used to be in the caretaker role," she says.
To combat feelings of guilt or helplessness, look for ways to express gratitude to your partner.
"One woman I know wrote a rap song for her husband and it was hilarious. He was laughing the whole time," says Garvey. "It doesn't have to be a big, grand gesture. Just offer a kind word and an, 'I love you and appreciate having you in my life.' Everyone feels good about that."
See more ways to strengthen your relationships.