In 2015, Cancer Council Queensland released the excellent downloadable booklet "Partners Guide To Coping With Cancer". The guide taps into decades of preceding research on the needs of partners and the psychological and social supports that may help. The research shows that partners can experience comparable levels of anxiety and depression, as well as both similar and different problems and challenges. Working step by step on well-validated strategies such as problem solving and active listening, the guide covers many relevant topics in about 70 pages. It reminds partners that self-care is essential, with the sage advice "be kind to yourself".
Forty years earlier, in 1975, Muhammad Ali composed the shortest English language poem. It came in response to an audience member’s challenge to him when Ali was giving an oration at Harvard University. The poem was simply: “me, we”.
Poetry has a way of cutting through what psychology can struggle to say, in 70 pages of carefully verified text.
In my decades of work as a clinical psychologist, perhaps the most tender recollections have been supporting both men and women whose partners have had life-changing and life-threatening illnesses, most often cancers, and seeing their relationships take on new dimensions and depths, when "business as usual" has been dramatically changed.
No, not all relationships survive or thrive.
How cancer affects any relationship can ride on many factors. No two relationships are the same, and no single relationship is static or unchangeable over time. With a diagnosis of cancer and the treatments that follow, can come both passing and lasting role changes, changes to both body image and body capacities, sexual intimacies, life expectancies and finances, pains and fatigues of body and mind. For a partner at the core, those relationships that both survive and thrive is about finding a commitment to the "we".
Yet neglecting the "me" is unlikely to help the "we".
One key stressor for partners is what happens when they feel unable to share their own experience or their own distress with their key confidant, the one who has cancer?
It's too easy for a partner to become isolated and unable to express one's own fears, sadness, frustrations, and concerns.
There is some suggestion that male partners are more vulnerable than females when their sole confidant is the unwell one.
A balance of supportive confidants is needed outside the relationship, as well as close and caring communication with each other in the "we".
The Partners Guide to Coping with Cancer puts it clearly;
“You may worry about burdening others, but often family and friends are eager to find ways to help, and may feel helpless or shut out if you don’t ask for or accept their help”.
That help may be practical or it may be through companionship and listening. Sometimes thoughts, feelings or circumstances might also mean that you need to talk to a professional. Trying to support yourself and your partner can be a short term effort but it's rarely the longer-term strategy that the cancer experience demands.