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Spouses, Partners, Family

Spouses, Partners, FamilyIf your spouse or partner has or has had breast cancer, we understand how frightening it can be for both of you.

Chances are pretty good that this is the person you lean on most for emotional support. And chances are equally good that you play the same role for them. That’s why it is especially important for you to be sensitive to the physical and psychological changes your loved one is undergoing or has undergone. We created this section of TheBreastCareSite to help you understand those changes and make it easier for you to continue being the supportive and understanding friend they fell in love with.

Listening and Talking: A guide for Family and Friends

“Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve found out who my real friends are,” said Jenny Cook, a 59 year-old woman who recently had a lumpectomy and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She was meeting with me at a breast care center where I regularly counsel breast cancer patients. As our session went on, Jenny added, “One friend has avoided me altogether. Another scolded me when I told her I sometimes feel sad because she says I need a positive attitude to get well.” Marie Donald, another breast cancer patient who is halfway through her radiation treatment told me, “My husband is so helpful with practical things, but he is at a loss when I tell him that I feel scared.”

The diagnosis of breast cancer sometimes affects a woman’s relationships with her family and friends. When people hear that someone they know and care about has breast cancer they may not know what to do to be helpful. Their behavior may be well-intentioned but misguided. What they say or do may be clouded by their own feelings of shock, anger, fear, and even by their own heightened vulnerability. Since research shows that cancer patients with a strong support network have a better quality of life than those with a weak support network, family and friends can truly make a difference for someone dear to them.

If you are a friend or family member of a breast cancer survivor, you should keep in mind that the goal is to help your friend or loved one feel that you are there for them and that they are not isolated in their experience. Often people who are sick have thoughts and feelings that they have never had before. This makes sense because they probably haven’t had cancer before. They probably feel concerned about the course of treatment and the prognosis. Mixed feeling such as anxiety, anger, hope and disbelief are common. It is a rare person who has only positive feelings in dealing with breast cancer. Additionally, contrary to what some people believe, having some negative feelings will not prevent a cancer patient from recovering from the disease. Stifling normal feelings actually makes recovery more difficult.

Here are some suggestions for family and friends who wish to help a person with breast cancer.

Ask open-ended questions. Ask, “How are you doing with it?” (If you say “How are you ,” your friend or loved one may only answer “Fine” and then the conversation may stop.) An open-ended question allows the person to say how she is feeling. If you are not sure whether someone wants to talk, you can ask directly, “Do you want to talk?” Sometimes your loved one may want to talk and sometimes she may not want to talk. Both are okay.

Yesterday, when I was meeting with Gail Block, a 42-year-old woman who, after four rounds of chemotherapy is heading back to surgery, told me, “I spent Saturday with Jeanne. She lets me vent. She knows that sometimes I just need to say everything out loud that swirls through my head. She is one of the few people who doesn’t tell me how to do this cancer thing. And the funny thing is, after I vented my feelings and thoughts to her, I felt better. We went to a movie and I forgot my troubles for a while. I can be sad or silly with her, just like I always have been.” Jeanne knows how to listen and how to talk to her friend. Jeanne truly “holds her up,” i.e., “gives support.” Gail’s relationship with Jeanne strengthens her in her effort to get well.

Accept both the patient’s thoughts and feelings. A good listener lets the speaker know that she has been heard. When a cancer patient feels that you understand the content and the emotion of what she says, she can move on and better deal with her situation. Try to track what she says. Say, “I see what you mean” or “I can really understand that.” You can also reflect back her emotions by saying something like, “You seem sad,” or “You seem worried about the side-effects of chemotherapy.”

Don’t contradict, judge, or second-guess. This is about what your loved one is going through, not you. Give the gift of acceptance and permission. Validating someone’s experience is comforting. It helps them feel more normal as they are going through a situation that is not at all normal for them.

All names have been changed to protect their identity

Take Care of Yourself

When your partner was first diagnosed with breast cancer, chances are she felt frightened, confused, and emotionally overwhelmed. So did you. Breast cancer turned your world upside-down, too, and your feelings probably ran the gamut from fear and despair to guilt and rage. Now that some time has passed, though, you are learning to be your partner's number one supporter. But are you remembering to take care of yourself?

Caregiving and takingYour partner's cancer is likely to be one of the biggest crises the two of you will ever face together. It may bring with it many changes, such as changes in your schedule, your role at home, your finances, and your plans for the near future. And all these unexpected changes can mean psychological stress. If you let things get out of hand, you can wind up with stress-related ailments, such as headaches, backaches, insomnia, fatigue, and depression. Since one sick person is enough, it's crucial to keep stress under control.

"Your partner's cancer is likely to be one of the biggest crises the two of you will ever face together."

Breathing lessons

One of the simplest ways to head off stress and bring on relaxation is with deep abdominal breathing. Here is an easy breathing exercise to try:

  1. Sit, lie, or stand in a comfortable position. Become aware of your breathing.
  2. Close your eyes. Place one hand on your belly just below your navel.
  3. Take a long, deep breath in. Feel your hand rise slightly as you inhale.
  4. Let the breath out slowly. Feel your hand fall slightly as you exhale.
  5. Keep taking long, deep, steady breaths for a few minutes. Let the stress leave your body as you focus on your breathing.
  6. Let your breathing return to normal after a few minutes. You can do this exercise virtually anywhere, anytime during the day.

More helpful hints

These are more ways to be a good caregiver to yourself:

Don’t neglect your own physical health. Eat regular, well-balanced meals, and avoid overloading on junk food or caffeine. Exercise regularly, which is also an excellent stress reliever. And make sure to get enough sleep.

Find strength in spirituality. This can mean going to church or talking to a hospital chaplain, but it also can mean simply engaging in private prayer or meditation. Whatever form it takes, spirituality can be comforting and calming.

Take time out for yourself. Schedule regular breaks to visit with friends, go to the gym, play a sport, or pursue a hobby. You'll feel better, and your partner will benefit as well, since you'll be refreshed and invigorated afterward.

Plan fun times with your partner, too. Even during her treatment, don't let the hobbies you share fall by the wayside. You can still watch a movie, listen to music, or go for a walk. Just take it easy until she recovers her energy.

Be honest with your partner. Talk openly about how your lives have changed, and share your darkest fears as well as your brightest hopes. Most couples find that this kind of emotional intimacy just brings them closer together.

Reach out to others for support as well. If you are hurting, it can help to talk to people who have had similar experiences. For a referral to a support group for family members in your area, ask a doctor, nurse, or social worker. Or call the American Cancer Societyat (800) ACS-2345.



Gillette Women's Cancer Connection. For partners:

Introduction.; It's all about change.; Taking care of your self.

Benson, Herbert, and Eileen M. Stuart. The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness. New York: Fireside; 1992.

American Cancer Society. A Breast Cancer Journey: Your Personal Guidebook. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2001.

Kneece, Judy C. Helping Your Mate Face Breast Cancer: Tips for Becoming an Effective Support Partner. Columbia, SC: EduCare Publishing; 2001.