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Your Relationship with Your Spouse after Cancer

separator A cancer diagnosis affects pretty much all aspects of your life, and your relationship with your spouse is no different. In fact, cancer might affect your relationship with your spouse more than most other relationships—co-workers, friends, relatives and children—because it’s the most intimate relationship of all.

Some of the common issues that cancer can cause between couples include:

  • Difficulty talking about the cancer itself.
  • Worry about how your partner will react to your scars or other signs of your cancer.
  • Maintaining a sense of intimacy when sexual activity is affected.
  • Shifting roles and responsibilities when recovery makes it hard to perform normal activities.

Communicating—and listening—are key
If you don’t talk about the cancer and how it’s affecting your relationship, chances are you both will begin to feel isolated, frustrated and lonely. For example, if one partner is taking on more household work, he or she may feel overwhelmed, while the other may begin to feel guilty about not doing enough. If you’re the partner who has cancer, you may not want to show your spouse your new scars and you may worry whether your spouse will still love you with these imperfections. If you’re the spouse of the person with cancer, you may feel uncomfortable about the scars, but also guilty about feeling that way.

With so many emotions bubbling up all the time, it’s important to address them. If you don’t, it’s like steam that can’t escape. Eventually, there’s going to be some kind of eruption.

►        Look for solutions to your problems together. Don’t decide on your own how best to handle a situation, whether you’re the person with cancer or the spouse without it. For example, it might seem like the best thing to take on the grocery shopping and cooking if your partner usually does that but now doesn’t feel well. And it may well be. On the other hand, your spouse might feel the need to keep contributing whenever possible. So before you make any decisions, talk about it first. Maybe your spouse wants to try to keep on doing those things. Maybe you can do them sometimes now, but not always. The key is to negotiate and discuss

►        Share your feelings frequently. You and your spouse need to be on the same page as much as possible, each knowing where the other is coming from. That means that when you’re feeling anxious, angry, scared, frustrated, helpless or any other feeling, you should share these feelings with your partner. This can help build intimacy and trust as you face the uncertainty that often comes with a diagnosis of cancer and cancer treatment.

►        Try to begin your statements with “I feel as if…, I think that…, I’m wondering whether…, I’m worried that…” This is a way to show what’s going on with you without pointing blame at your partner. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t want to be sexually intimate with me anymore,” say instead, “I’m worried that I may not be sexually attractive to you anymore now that I have these scars.” This makes it easier for your partner to respond, because it’s not an attack.

►        Get help from professionals if necessary. If you can’t seem to reach a point where you’re able to communicate with your spouse about the feelings you’re having and the things that are going on between the two of you, consider seeing a counselor or going to a support group.

Can cancer help relationships?
Cancer brings stresses and emotional problems, but it helps many couples as well. They realize how important they are to each other. They learn to let the small things go and to change their priorities, focusing mainly on what’s important to them. This new perspective often draws them closer together.

Couples do get through this difficult time. According to the National Cancer Institute, the divorce rate for people who’ve had cancer is about the same as for people who haven’t had cancer.

American Cancer Society; National Cancer Institute; L. Armstrong. It Is Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. Putnam, 2000.
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