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Cancer & Parenting: Supporting a Spouse

November 23, 2015

When we talk about cancer, we often think about the person who is diagnosed. That’s rightfully so, but cancer also has a huge impact on caregivers, particularly spouses.

The spouse of someone with cancer goes through a range of emotions, from fear and confusion when his or her partner is first diagnosed to wondering how best to offer support.

But often, the spouse needs a lot of support, too. Including caregiving duties, a spouse may take on more day-to-day parental responsibilities and household chores to help the entire family maintain a sense of normalcy. Navigating cancer as a family is challenging, but if you are the spouse of someone who has been diagnosed, there are ways to get through it.

Managing Family

Helping children understand and cope with a parent’s diagnosis if often one of the most important and difficult responsibilities of a supporting spouse.

Depending on your children’s age, it can be difficult to explain what’s going on. But the best advice I can give is to be honest and try to prepare your kids for what lies ahead. The basic information you share with them should include details about the name of the cancer, where it’s located in the body and how it will be treated so that mom or dad is fully healthy again. You also can discuss how the diagnosis may change certain routines your family has or the ability of the diagnosed parent to participate in everyday activities.

During this time, it’s also important to encourage children to exercise gentleness with the parent who has cancer. Children may not understand why that parent isn’t able to spend as much time with them as before or attend school events or certain social gatherings. It’s important for the spouse to both show and tell the child that even though some things have changed, he or she is still loved. Often, spending one-on-one time with kids or doing something they enjoy helps kids feel as though things are normal. For spouses taking care of a loved one, it can be difficult to carve out this time outside of caregiving responsibilities, but it’s important to take a break.

Relationship Between You and Your Spouse

Cancer also affects you and your spouse’s relationship, everything from intimacy to how you share family responsibilities. When one partner has cancer, another carries more of the load — and this often feels overwhelming. When one spouse is going through cancer, the other’s experiences are usually secondary, which can make that person feel generally unsupported.

It’s difficult to cope with these emotions, but anyone who has ever supported their partner through cancer likely has experienced them. Open communication is key during these times. Share your feelings with your partner and talk to your partner about how his or her feelings, as well. Cancer can be very isolating for both the person who is diagnosed and the spouse, but openly communicating about how cancer is affecting the family makes the journey a little easier to deal with. If you can, also set aside time for you and your partner to reconnect. This can be a date night at your favorite restaurant or just enjoying a movie together in bed.

Getting Support

While the focus is on supporting a loved one with cancer, it’s critical for caregivers to take care of themselves, too. Between driving a spouse back and forth from treatment and taking care of children, caregivers may not have much time for themselves. They also may not take the time to seek support or share their feelings with family and close friends who can help with some of the caregiving responsibilities.

We often think we can do everything on our own, but with cancer it’s important to have a community of support around you. Seek advice from others who have gone through the same thing. Local cancer support communities and online support groups are the best resource for this. Also don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. In times like these, people are often willing to help, but you have to be open about what you need. Whether it’s picking up the kids from school, doing grocery shopping or taking a spouse to treatment, friends and family are likely ready, willing and able to offer additional support.

Cancer creates a new normal for families, between parents and children and between spouses. There’s a reason cancer is called a family disease. It affects everyone, especially a spouse who now must assume the role of caregiver. The entire process can be challenging, but it’s important for spouses to seek support from friends, family, local support groups and health professionals so that they don’t have to take on cancer alone.