My partner has cancer
You might be dating, in a serious relationship or commited for life. Whatever your situation, cancer is bound to throw some challenges your way. You and your other half both have a lot to deal with, but it doesn't have to come between you. It comes down to supporting each other, and yourselves.
How am I feeling?
Shock, anger, fear, disbelief, numbness: it’s all normal. Being ‘the other half’ can be extra complicated though. If you’re in a fairly new relationship, you could feel a bit left out while family rallies round your partner, or you might be wondering if this is even something you can handle.
If you’ve been together for a while, the changes to your daily lives could leave you feeling like your own needs aren’t being met, and you might feel guilty for needing support too. Feeling frustrated and powerless to help is also common, but you can make a difference.
How are they feeling?
There will probably be a million questions flying around your partner’s mind about their prognosis, what’s going to happen to them and how cancer is going to affect their life. They could be feeling vulnerable and like no one really understands.
They will undoubtedly have down days, but they might also feel like they have to ‘be strong’ and put on a brave face for the people around them. When it comes to you and your relationship, they might be afraid to put pressure or expectations on you. They might not know how to talk to you about their feelings, or feel that they need to protect you from it.
What do we do?
If you’re a new couple and you’ve found yourself in this situation, you have nothing to lose by dropping those barriers and getting it all out there – even if you don’t want to talk, or it feels weird or too full on. You’re going to need to communicate with each other so you can figure things out together.
Been together a while? It’s the same deal. Being honest and open can be difficult but it’s the only way to face issues with a united front. Don’t be scared to be vulnerable with each other. If you share your feelings, it will encourage your partner to do the same.
What should we expect?
No one can predict the future but here are some things to think about.
Cancer massively disrupts everyday life. Your partner will be given a treatment plan based on the best course of action for their cancer. This new routine might mean they have to stay in hospital for long periods of time. They might be treated near to home, or they might have to travel a long way. They might have to give up studying or working for a while.
Side effects might mean they can’t socialise in the same way, or they might have to give up hobbies or activities that are physically demanding. They will probably feel tired or sick. They might put on weight or lose their hair. Emotionally, they might feel low on self esteem and worry that you’ll stop fancying them. They might also feel anxious and depressed, or isolated from the outside world while everyone else seems to get on with life as normal.
It depends how much your lives overlap. If you’re casually seeing each other, your life could look pretty similar on paper – although you might want to make a conscious effort to see more of your partner and find ways to help them.
If you are living together or have your own family, then the impact on your life could be dramatic. You might find yourself playing a tough role holding everything together practically, as well as being an emotional rock for your partner.
Taking on more responsibility for paying the rent or mortgage, or keeping daily life as normal as possible for your kids (if you have them) can be stressful and demanding in its own right. Also, don’t underestimate the emotional weight on your shoulders. You might feel that you have to be strong for your partner but you have every right to feel scared and upset too.
Cancer has a huge impact on people’s lives. Some couples grow stronger. Some relationships suffer. Getting through this together won’t be easy and the truth is that you might grow apart, or end up wanting different things.
But that’s a part of life (cancer or not) and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way. Cancer isn’t a reason to stay together. So if it isn’t working, it’s ok to go your separate ways. Your best chance of making things work is to keep talking to each other and get the individual support you both need.
Even if you don’t go into detail, your children are bound to pick up on what’s going on – whether that’s changes to their routine or people’s emotional reactions. It can be hard to know what information they need and which words to use but it’s good to have honest chats with them, little and often. This will give them the opportunity to process all the change around them and ask questions.
It’s important to build in breaks for you and your partner so you can both rest and recharge. Family and friends may rally round to help you with childcare so you can carry on working or spend time with your partner. The cost of childcare fees can be difficult to meet but there is help available in the form of benefits, vouchers and employment right – visit gov.uk to see what you might be entitled to.
You should feel able to enjoy a normal life as much as possible, and this goes for sex too. That’s not to say things will carry on as usual. Your partner might not feel up to it physically. If they’re staying in hospital then opportunities might be limited.
Bear in mind they might also be feeling low on body confidence and not in the right place emotionally – which might go for you too. Again, the key is to talk. Neither of you are mindreaders and you shouldn’t make assumptions about what you both want or don’t want.
Cancer or treatment might reduce your partner’s ability to have children. This might be temporary or permanent, and they might not know until long after they finish treatment. It should be possible for your partner to have fertility preservation treatment to store their eggs or sperm to allow them to have children in the future. It’s also possible to store embryos, otherwise known as eggs that have been fertilised with sperm. This is something you may want to talk about together.
The top five things you can do
1. Let them know you’re here
Be the person that your partner can talk to about anything. Knowing that they aren’t going to scare you off or overwhelm you will make your partner feel safe confiding in you. And this will make it easier to support each other as a couple.
2. Talk, and listen to what they need
Being honest and open with each other from the start will make it easier to keep this up in the future. Having this kind of relationship will help you overcome any issues that come your way and will ultimately bring you closer together.
3. Be yourself
Does your partner want to talk about cancer all the time? Probably not. You shouldn’t feel that you have to change the way you are. If humour is an important part of your relationship, there’s no need to suddenly get serious. Don’t make any assumptions about what you think they need or want – just be yourself and be led by them. They’ll probably appreciate the normality you bring, especially if you’re the one that can keep them feeling like their usual self.
4. Inform yourself
Getting familiar with common cancer issues can open up ideas of how you can be there for your partner. If they’ve had to give up work, could you look into what benefits are available? What about things they might need in hospital, like hand cream or a supply of their favourite snacks?
5. Look after number one
You can’t give someone the care and support they need if you’re running on empty too. Get yourself in a good place so you have the resilience to be there for your partner. This means eating well, exercising and having the energy to deal with this ‘new normal’. It also means seeking emotional support – whether that’s talking to other partners going through it, friends, family or professionals. Try asking your partner’s hospital team. They might be able to give you some good advice themselves, or point you in the direction of support.
We are all about making the lives of young people with cancer better. This is only possible because amazing people have decided to donate or fundraise for us. So join Team Young Lives and help us help other people like your partner.