12 Ways to Support Your Spouse When They Have Cancer

by Jane Ashley

The diagnosis of cancer in your spouse is devastating. You love them and want to help in every way possible. But it’s an emotional time for you as well. 

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You’re worried about the one you love. Can your loved stay home alone? What about the finances? And then, there are the logistical issues of transportation to and from treatment, meals, household chores and taking medicines on time. You still have to work and juggle your work schedule and your spouse’s treatment schedule. You can’t risk losing your job because your job may be the source of your family’s healthcare insurance. The household expenses of mortgage payments or rent continue along with car payments/auto insurance and all of the other expenses.

The spouse diagnosed with cancer has a full-time job just being in treatment. The spouse who is the caregiver has a full plate, juggling their job responsibilities, household responsibilities and helping their spouse.

What are some ways to support your loved one with cancer? No one can do all of these things so don’t feel guilty if you are unable to do everything mentioned here — the role of the caregiver is overwhelming.

Special Things

Listen. Our loved one is facing a diagnosis that everyone hopes they will never hear. It’s scary for them, and it’s scary for you. But who else can they talk to and disclose their biggest fears? Just listen…allow them to express their fears. Sometimes, words aren’t needed; just listening is enough. Try not to be judgmental. Try not to interrupt. Just be there and listen. Having you as their sounding board is one of the most important ways to support your loved one with cancer.

Educate yourself about their cancer. Learn enough about their cancer that you understand what they’re talking about. Reputable websites provided by the American Cancer Society and institutions like Mayo and MD Anderson help you understand more about the kind of cancer your spouse has and how it’s treated. You’ll also learn about side effects so that you’ll understand why they are tired or cold or have mouth sores. Understanding why helps you feel compassionate when they are having a bad day.

Work through your own feelings. It’s important to deal with our fears too. It’s okay to acknowledge your fears and concerns to your loved one so that they are reassured that you still love them. Our loved ones might mistake being stoic and unemotional as meaning that you don’t care.

Support your loved one’s decisions. This is sometimes hard to do. It’s your loved one’s body and life so ultimately it is their decision regarding treatment options. Respect their decision.

Work through your own feelings about your loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Not only is this a difficult time for your spouse, it’s a difficult time for you. Your loved one has a serious illness. You’re concerned about them? How sick will they be? If they are major income producer for the family, will they be able to work? Is their healthcare insurance provided by their job? What will happen to us if they can’t work? Can we stay in our house? What about our children? Diagnosis time is an emotional time for both patient and caregiver — it’s best if you try to work through your feelings and fears at the beginning so that you can concentrate on the day-to-day challenges of your spouse/partner having cancer. 

Work Through Your Own Feelings

Be empathetic. It can sometimes be difficult to understand what your partner is feeling. They have fears — am I going to die, what will we do if I can’t work, will I be brave enough for the treatments that I’m facing, fear of leaving things undone, fear of pain. Have patience as your loved one works through the enormity of their diagnosis.

Empahty

Let them do what they can do for themselves. Don’t be a “helicopter parent.” Hovering over your partner, taking over all of their tasks and doing things may seem like the route to take. But it’s important to remember that your spouse may still want to do some of their favorite things, like cooking or some yard work or continuing to work. Staying busy and doing something that we love to do helps keep our mind off cancer.

A sense of humor goes a long way. Laughter is the best medicine. There is enough doom and gloom and discouraging news during cancer treatment. A sense of humor about things out of your control help us get back on track emotionally. Daily life need not be discouraging. Watch funny videos, subscribe to a joke of the day email or appreciate the little ironies of life.

Accompany them to their medical appointments (if possible). The waiting room can be a lonely and scary place when you’re waiting by yourself. A second set of ears hearing what the oncologist, radiologist or surgeon says is invaluable. You might even record the visit on your phone or take notes to ensure that you both understand what was said.

Give them their space and quiet time. Sometimes, the spouse needs to be the gatekeeper. Your loved one may be exhausted, nauseated, have pain or other treatment side effects and not feel like company. Thank visitors and family members for their concern, but be the gatekeeper and gently protect your partner from company when they’re not up to guests.

Show affection. Your spouse may not feel like having sexual relations, but they still need a tender touch and reassurance from their significant other. Hold hands and kiss them tenderly —tell them how much you care. Take them out for coffee or for lunch or a special dinner to affirm and strengthen your relationship.

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Help with chores. When time allows, help your loved one with household chores. Put the dishes in the dishwasher, wash the bedroom linens and towels or vacuum the living room floor. Small acts of kindness help our loved one in two ways – saving their energy and showing that you care.

Dear Family: Things You Can Do For Me Without Asking

When one spouse has cancer, cancer is happening to both of you. Your lives are already intertwined — cancer adds new stresses for both of you. But together, just as you have worked through other adversities — you’ll get through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

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