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How to support a partner with cancer

A man hugging a woman.

It’s often difficult to know the best way to show support for a partner who has cancer. But there are things you can do that will make the time less stressful for both of you.

When your partner has cancer, you naturally want to help. But no matter how close the two of you are—or what you've faced as a couple in the past—you may be uncertain about the best way to provide that support.

That's where these six tips from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Caregiver Action Network, National Cancer Institute and HelpGuide come in. They can help you support your partner emotionally and practically, and can help you feel less anxious and helpless too.

1. Listen. When someone is experiencing painful emotions—and your partner likely is—it can be difficult to know what to say. But often the best comfort for someone with cancer is simply to allow them to express what they're going through without telling them how they should feel or trying to put a positive spin on things.

If you're struggling with what to say, keep in mind that a warm hug or simple kindness, like fluffing a pillow if your partner needs to rest, conveys a lot about your concern.

2. Respect your partner's reactions. Different people cope with cancer differently. For example, you may see cancer as a problem that needs solving, while your partner mostly wants emotional support. Likewise, at times one of you may feel encouraged, while the other feels frightened. Don't pressure your partner to behave in a certain way.

3. Become informed. The more you know about your partner's diagnosis and treatment, the more you'll be able to help.

4. Be a team. Whenever possible, be at your partner's side during medical appointments and explore treatment choices—and their risks and benefits—together. You can even help prepare a list of questions to ask doctors and take notes on what they recommend.

Sharing decisions can take stress off your partner and strengthen your relationship during a difficult time. Still, remember that choosing what's next is ultimately up to your partner. So even if you disagree, be supportive.

5. Don't let cancer crowd out everything else. Talk about topics you normally discuss—not just cancer. Lift your partner's spirts and yours by keeping up with routines that have been a part of your life as a couple, like sipping morning coffee together. Don't be afraid to laugh together either. Humor helps you cope.

6. Care for yourself. Take care of your own health so that you can be strong enough to support your partner. And take an honest look at what you can and can't do. Accept offers of help and suggest specific things others can do to help you care for your loved one.

Reviewed 1/23/2023

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