How to be a partner to a person with cancer?
May 22, 2016 1:17 AM   Subscribe

I don't know what I can do to help my partner come to terms with his illness.

SO has completed treatment for a rare cancer (surgery and radiation). He's physically doing pretty well but it's early days. And he's sad. So sad.

We have a 1yo kid. SO took care of me during a hard time of post natal depression. He set aside checking the lump thinking it was some other injury. By the time we discovered it he was angry at himself for not having discovered it sooner. We are both working, both busy. Things are financially lean but we're OK, parenting takes up most of our time.

I'm very good at compartmentalising. I'm mostly so pleased he's alive and doing pretty well that I'm mostly over the moon and life as usual. But he's sad. Sad about not being around for our kid potentially. He's uncomfortable all the time and will never physically be the same. He is very young, thinking about dealing with this long term. It's a lot for a person to manage.

Therapy - he's a pretty even headed well adjusted person - even now he is still an awesome partner and co-parent, until he hits a wall and loses it. Not for long though. He just holds it together. So basically he doesn't feel he has time for therapy, he wants to focus on physiotherapy and getting stronger. So no therapy suggestions, I've tried. And please believe me when I say he's pretty okay without it although I would much prefer he went.

My question is about me. How can I be a better partner? I've been trying to give him space to hang with friends or work on himself in whatever way, but he just plugs along, it's like his goal is to make everything as normal as possible, when I know it isn't, and when he confesses his sadness. I feel like we're stuck in the production line of work, mortgage, parenting, and there isn't the space to breathe and come to terms with this happening to him. And I'm just...finding it easy to be normal, because like I said I'm just happy he's here, but I don't know how I can make him less sad, and I should do something.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can't make him stop being sad. His sadness is his own. We can never take that from another person however close we are to them and however much we disagree with how they're coping. From your question it sounds like the two of you are actually doing a really great job of holding things together. Why not try thinking of this in more positive terms? You went through a horrible thing and are surviving. Well done!

I think the real issue is that you're not feeling like a team. That's hard. All I think you can do is keep on talking to him, letting him know you see what he's going through and are there with him, and hold him through his storms when he does reach breaking point.

If you two can carve out some space from the treadmill of your lives to just be together that would probably do wonders. Could you afford a sitter for a weekly datenight? Your relationship will benefit if you can adjust your routines so you have a little pocket of time just to be close and intimate.

So sorry your family has had to go through this.
posted by mymbleth at 1:53 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Let him be sad. Being sad is part of dealing with it. Be a good listener, but stay aware of yourself and if it is more than you can handle, have a plan for getting him the ears he needs in advance. That is what being a good partner to someone with cancer is about. You can't make his unpleasant feelings go faster, any more than you can make the cancer go away, but you can be the person he loves and you can let him have the feelings he has.
posted by gingerest at 2:29 AM on May 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

You sound like you would benefit from therapy for yourself! Even if your SO isn't on board with the idea for himself, it sounds like he'd probably be supportive of what you want to do to take care of yourself (and subsequently your whole family). Especially if you can get into a good headspace where you have some mental resources to fall back on so your SO can be frank with you about his sadness and concerns without additionally worrying about how he's making you feel - because you have an outside system of support, too.

Speaking of, now is a really good time to go through the people who wished your SO well when he was going through treatment and when you had your kid and said "let me know if there's anything I can do to help!" Call in those favors. Carve out little slivers of time to really lock down a network, of support and also of family (of choice or blood or whatever).

It doesn't take too much in one go, just regular small commitments. Cards during special occasions, a lunch or coffee once a month, a skype call here and there, photos exchanged on facebook of the kids, an invitation to a holiday get-together. These are absolutely 100% things your SO can do, and when he does them he can think about it like future maintenance of the family for you and the kid if he's not around as long as he'd like to be.

And in the short term when you're calling in favors, you can make some time for the two of you to be together and enjoy life as it is now. People really do care. If you don't have the kind of support network I'm talking about, it might be that others see you as the kind of family who doesn't want to be a bother, or doesn't want to be full of drama. But if you're vocal about needing some support, people will help, really. Be it babysitting your kid for a little while, bringing by dinner, taking one or the other of you guys out for an afternoon of something fun, coming by to clean your kitchen or help with yardwork... Lots of different things.

There also might be someone that your SO is comfortable being sad (weak) around, who isn't a therapist, and who isn't you. Sometimes what happens is one person in a relationship is going through a hardship and they feel like they can only be sad around someone who they aren't so close to. And in that case a therapist really helps, but if they're resistant to therapy on the basis that it's not the "real" issue or it's not what they think they need, just having a friend they can kind of collapse around, but who definitely doesn't depend on them emotionally, can be a great boon. The trick there is, if you can help out *that* person, so they can be supportive of your SO. No need to be sneaky about it - maybe you have an in-law or an old friend who you can help out somehow or someone who is a bit lonely who would like to spend time in a busy house with a little kid but who would feel like they're otherwise intruding? Encourage your SO to be open about things with people who care about him. Let him know that his worries are okay and his feelings are okay. Even a little bit can be really helpful.

Basically, expand your support network. You can depend on people outside of each other.
posted by Mizu at 3:40 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Therapy for you and a support group. You can't make your husband do anything, but I'll point this out to you, feel free to use this logic on him.

You ignored the lump and it was something serious. You're ignoring therapy and...maybe that's not a good idea either.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:25 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Do you have parents/in-laws who can take the baby for a long weekend? I might do you a lot of good to get away somewhere and focus on your marriage for a few days.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:19 AM on May 22, 2016

he doesn't feel he has time for therapy

Time is the key word here. When someones time gets limited (in reality, or in one's mind's worst case scenario) it's natural for that person to start picking and choosing. That's obviously what he does: prioritising the real life and getting better physically, and not using up the time he believes he's got for introspection.
If he's anyway doing physiotherapy, one could imagine he could add in some mindfulness techniques, without allotting more time to either. This might be something to suggest.

Then I agree with others that actual sadness (as opposed to destructive depressions of various kinds) is not something that necessarily needs to be fixed. One lives through sadness; it's a process, not a dead end.
posted by Namlit at 6:51 AM on May 22, 2016

Making happiness the only allowable state of being is one of the modern world's more toxic errors.

When bad things happen, it's perfectly reasonable to be sad.

he's sad. Sad about not being around for our kid potentially. He's uncomfortable all the time and will never physically be the same. He is very young, thinking about dealing with this long term. It's a lot for a person to manage.

Yes it is.

Frankly, he's grieving, and neither you nor anybody else has the right to tell him he's doing that wrong.

when he confesses his sadness

The idea that sadness is something that requires to be "confessed" sets my teeth on edge.

If you want to be the best partner you can be, work hard on being OK with his feelings being what they are.
posted by flabdablet at 7:14 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Empathy is about listening first and fixing things last. Everything mentioned upthread is solid advice.

Do what you can to create a space for him to be able to feel strong enough to voice whatever needs to be.

If you feel it necessary to talk with him about it, create the kind of questions he can have space in answering them, i.e. open-ended questions. Sit with how uncertain he is, and how his answers aren't even known to him yet much less anyone else close to him.

Give yourself space, too. This isn't easy for anyone right now and just showing up as you're doing is enormously comforting, no matter how awkward or uncertain you feel. Imagine what his life would be right now if your kid and you weren't waking up with him every day to work through this.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:25 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

i went through something similar some time back. happy to share details privately if you contact me via email or ask the mods to include a throw-away email address here.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:10 AM on May 22, 2016

All good stuff written here....

I've gone through this 2x in support of partner.

What I learned from my first experience is....

1) take it day to day.
2) stay out of her way no matter what decision she makes.
3) hold her every night.

Lipstick Thespian's last paragraph is well-put. I think for a guy there is a quiet, unnerving loss of identity. Knowing that someone is there who has his back is vital. The care and thoughtfulness you've put into your request makes me think he has that :)

And with that said, please make sure you get your needs met. That also is a part of having his back. There is a mindset that we need to be there 100% for our partner. Anything less shows we don't care. That's garbage. Having been raised Catholic it is easy for me to slip into "deprivation as a virtue".
posted by goalyeehah at 8:17 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I suspect you'd benefit greatly from a caregivers' support group, maybe even more so than from therapy. It can be really helpful to see that you're not the only one going through this, and that your feelings of powerlessness are normal and his feelings of grief are normal.
posted by lazuli at 8:39 AM on May 22, 2016

nth: caregivers' support group, for you.

Recovery is about much more than killing the cancer cells. I didn't get a clear understanding about the extent to which your SO was damaged, or his prognosis. I don't really need to know these things, but they are factors to be handled. It may be hard for you and SO to talk frankly about mortality right now. The support group will give you keys to this topic, as well as clues to living with a post-op cancer patient. Certain residual effects of the treatment may require attention.

Mrs mule was able to navigate my treatment and post-treatment issues largely because of the excellent support group offered by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I was hospitalized there for three months. During one phase of treatment I couldn't be left alone, and it was because of my caregivers that I was able to come home for a few weeks. At one point a friend came to stay with us, and sat with me while Mrs mule did some shopping or took a nap. My post-treatment phase included monthly trips to a local hospital here in Oregon, for drips and close monitoring, for a year.

As you see, caregiving is not a one-size fits all venture. Friends can be helpful, and even when they want to do so, they are often unable to figure out precisely how. Anyhow, a caregiver support group will help you generate options that are suited to what you need.

Best of luck.
posted by mule98J at 9:44 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Does his type of cancer require follow up visits to see if it's come back? My type of rare cancer can only be "cured" through a long and complicated surgery, which I'm not currently elligible to have, but even once that's done people still have to go back for three month or six month follow up visits and it's not until you've gone through YEARS of those that you can actually be sure the cancer isn't coming back. His may be totally different, obviously, but it's not crazy to wonder whether you're really cured after the initial treatment. Time is the only thing that will help with this.

He also may be extremely aware now of all the OTHER things that can go wrong to him or to you or your kid. I know people in my cancer support group who have had three different types of cancer. In the time since I've been diagnosed, I have friends who have parents diagnosed with ALS and a friend who lost her husband to suicide. You may be thinking you're past the worst of it and he may be looking for the next terrible thing to come down the pike.

Basically I'd give him space and support to express those fears to you. He shouldn't feel like he has to hide them or "be strong for you." Beyond that, it's just time. Time to get used to the giant scare this has been and time to get used to a new consciousness of everyone's mortality.
posted by MsMolly at 8:43 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been sitting on this answer for over a week, because it's emotionally difficult for me to give advice on this, but my cancer-survivor husband heavily encouraged me to share.

My spouse was also diagnosed with a rare form of cancer after ignoring symptoms for over a year (in his case, due to being underinsured). We don't have children yet but he was on the cusp of beginning his dissertation, while I was working at a very demanding project.

In some ways, the time after treatment (surgery and radiation) was worse for both of us than during. For him the effects continued to worsen for several weeks, and healing after that took several months. He concluded radiation at the end of July and was barely working half-time by mid-October. He desperately wanted to get back to a normal life but was still healing. Yeah, he was really sad and a bit scared for the future, too.

As the spouse it's really had because I wanted to fix him, but there's nothing I can fix. I made sure he was eating and drinking to sustain his healing. I tried to validate his feelings, without agreeing or lying either, and reinforce that he has a support structure like, "I totally understand that you are frustrated with how tired you are today. It sucks to have work obligations you can't meet, but you know that your advisor wants the best for your recovery and understands that you're going to miss a few paper submissions."

On that note, I completely agree that you should be building or tapping your support system as much as possible. Even if the visible parts of recovery are done, he's still healing and so are you. Even if it's just getting a friend or family member to babysit one night a week so the two of you can have private time to talk and decompress.

It might help his fears for the future to start planning for one. I remember immediately after my husband was diagnosed, all planning went on hold. Family would ask us to come visit next spring, but I could hardly think past the next week. Once our lives returned to a small sense of normalcy, we deliberately started making plans - for a trip away together, for what we would do at Christmas, for celebrating his dissertation and my birthday, and even a big job change and a cross-country move. The practicalities of treatment followed by uncertainty of recurrence can lead to stagnation and wasted time - helping him start to think about a future where he is alive could help him make the most of what time he has now. Acting like everything was back to normal and nothing had changed felt less scary, but I think it has been emotionally freeing to acknowledge that our life had been knocked for a loop.
posted by muddgirl at 1:42 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Just to be clear, by "plan for the future," i don't mean plans like "Oh, when you're healthy we'll [do something he used to enjoy doing but can't right now]" I mean concrete plans that are achievable with his current level of health and your support system.
posted by muddgirl at 2:38 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

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