Helping Couples Cope with Cancer

When Rosie found out at age 52 that she had Stage 2 breast cancer, she panicked. She wondered if she would live to see grandchildren, if she would need a mastectomy, and if she could manage to cope with months of chemotherapy. But her biggest fear was that Gordon, her second husband of 4 years, would abandon her. She usually felt good about their relationship, but Gordon was often annoyed by Rosie’s 17-year-old son. Rosie knew that Gordon had dated many women during his own single years. Would he stay with her or find someone who could better meet his needs?

Cancer often brings unpleasant side effects from treatment, changes to the body, and fears about death. But being diagnosed with cancer can also evoke a fear of losing an intimate relationship. For years, we have heard the myth that cancer often leads partners to leave a marriage or dating relationship. Studies of cancer patients have not found divorce rates to be higher than usual. In fact, many studies find that couples grow closer to one another.   

A diagnosis of cancer does not just affect the individual diagnosed; it impacts their partner as well. Partners often need to take over new roles and responsibilities in addition to managing their regular demands. At the same time, partners can experience the fear of potentially losing—the center of their life- their mate and may feel helpless to ease their partner’s fears and discomforts during cancer treatment. Both women and men may struggle in learning how to best support and encourage each other when one or both have a serious illness. 

At City of Hope in Duarte California, the Department of Supportive Care Medicine has created the Couples Coping with Cancer Together Program (Couples Program). The Couples Program is the only program of its kind; it is tailored for the unique needs of couples facing a cancer diagnosis (including same sex couples) and integrated into the standard of medical care.  

The goals of the Couples Program are to:

  • Proactively identify and address a couple's distress so they can maximize the benefits of medical care
  • Enhance a couple’s ability to openly and honestly communicate, emotionally support, and solve problems together during times of stress using strengths-based interventions
  • Provide couples with skills needed to start living the relationship they have always wanted. 

Before their first visit with the physician, couples meet with a couple’s counselor.

In the session the couple’s counselor normalizes differences in communication and coping, shares wisdom from past patients, partners, research and clinical experience and provides concrete and practical behaviors to best support and problem-solve with one another. Male partners can learn that instead of trying to solve problems, it’s okay to simply sit quietly with the woman and listen, even if she is crying or upset. And female partners can learn that they should avoid bringing up past grievances and focus on what they need from their partner today. The session ends by reinforcing that a majority of couples grow closer to one another despite stressors.  

Over 600 couples have participated in the Couples Program.  Satisfaction surveys show that both patients and partners feel the couple’s session is helpful and would recommend the program to other couples. Physicians noticed that couples who participated in the program seemed calmer and more able to focus on learning about their treatment plan. Not every couple needs additional interventions, but couples are offered short term couple counseling, access to a monthly couples group, educational and problem solving support, and help as needed from other members of the supportive care team. 

In our October 24 webinar, Courtney Bitz, LCSW, Clinical Social Work Manager and Matthew Loscalzo, LCSW, Liliane Elkins Professor of Supportive Care Programs, City of Hope, will present and discuss the Couples Coping with Cancer Together Program. 

This educational material is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace, or substitute for, professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read in this educational material.

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