Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: How Couples Cope with Cancer: A Shared Journey

Facing a Cancer Diagnosis as a Couple

  • “I heard the word malignancy but I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t cry until I told Jack.”
  • “I could tell from her eyes that she was trying to be strong for me. I think I was trying to be strong for her.”

A traumatic event is defined as one that is life threatening, unimaginable and unexpected. It is an event that can assault your body, your spirit and your life as you know it. For a couple, a medical diagnosis of cancer is a traumatic event for both partners – the one diagnosed and the one standing by their side.file000717272965

As discussed in the book Healing Together, one of things we learned working with partners who have courageously faced the terror and challenge of cancer is that when a couple understands each others’ burdens and recognizes each others’ strengths, they have a physical and psychological advantage in the journey they never expected to take.

Diagnosis and Self-Definitions

The Patient

Perhaps as difficult as the physical symptoms and medical interventions associated with a cancer diagnosis is the initial threat to a person’s sense of self. Whether symptoms were present, denied or not even there, it is psychologically discrepant to go from the definition of self as new young mother, soccer coach, CEO, retired golfer, or school principal to that of cancer patient in the time it takes to hear a final diagnosis.

As one man replied in response to his wife’s worried urging that he decide upon a doctor and course of treatment, “ I can’t even get my head around the thought of being someone with cancer – much less grasp what to do.”

In a beautiful little book, Valley of The Shadow, in which Gay Lindquist, a former nurse, shares her journey through lung cancer and beyond, she tells us that before treatment began she asked her husband to take her picture to help her hold on to the self she knew. While applauding those with the courage to go without a wig, she discloses her initial need to look like herself- to wear a wig so nothing will “give me away” to the outside world.

The Patient’s Partner

To bear witness to a partner’s diagnosis of cancer and walk the path with them is also to be thrust into a new definition of self. Life has suddenly changed. The future is no longer as it was planned for self or partner. How could this happen? With feelings of heartache, fear and confusion there is often the self-imposed demand of making it better but not knowing how.

Given that most of us would rather hold on to an illusion of control than accept life’s painful twists, the partner like the patient may feel shame and blame. Sometimes helplessness and anger are hidden in initial feelings of blame of the diagnosed patient. “Why did he have to smoke?” “Maybe she should have exercised more.” Rarely is it voiced. Often it ushers in guilt. Mostly it recedes behind the true worry and concern for the partner.

One man came to see me because of panic and stress symptoms. He had never associated these with keeping his wife’s breast cancer a secret from his co-workers – an important support system that he later re-claimed.

The “We”

Partner recognition of the burdens each carries becomes a source of mutual resilience. Gay Lindquist reports that she really felt she could go to her chemotherapy alone but her husband insisted on going. Feeling that it might make him feel less helpless, she agreed only to find that the shared experience and the rose he brought her after each session – was invaluable to both.

The Mission

Medical Treatment

  • Because medical diagnosis, like any other trauma, sets off the emotional flight/flight survival mode at the cost of  cognitive/linguistic processing, having two heads listening and “ making sense” of  what is being said is always better than one. Partners have an advantage here.
  • Once a path for treatment is set, most couples are at their best dealing with the concrete tasks of appointments, schedules, changes in roles and responsibilities. In some ways it is a reprieve from the emotional tasks. It offers the patient a feeling that the partner is taking care of them and maintaining their life. It offers the partner a feeling of some control – of being able to do something!
  • Of importance is the expressed appreciation of each other’s courage and persistence in this challenge. The rest of the world may not account for the team effort. Looking back, Gay Lindquist felt that her husband would have benefited from receiving much more of the support and recognition offered to her – the patient.

Balancing the Rest of the Life

One way to re-define cancer as one dimensional and not the total definition of a couple’s life is for partners to encourage and help each other re-claim the valued aspects of themselves in some old, new or creative ways.  By getting together with friends, returning in some way to work,  taking the weekend trip, watching TV together, running to the kids’ events, singing at church, cooking together, being intimate in some way, couples re-set the balance and the broader definition of who they still are together.

Stress Reducers and Separate Support Systems

Traumatic events like cancer freeze time and absorb attention. It is difficult when you or someone you love is in danger to focus on anything else – but when partners make an effort and give themselves permission to return to their original individual stress reducers and networks of support – her piano, his bowling league, her friends, his golf games, etc. they enhance their resiliency as a couple because they double their reserves and support.

The Journey

Perhaps the most effective thing that couples can do as they face a diagnosis of cancer is to take turns holding on to hope. Because partners have a bond, they are often the most devastated by the pain and suffering they see in the person they love. They are also the most emotionally significant in “ being there” in a way that makes the future seem real and possible. As Celine Dion’s song lyrics imply – this is “The Power of Love.”

We’re heading for something
Somewhere I’ve never been
Sometimes I am frightened
But I’m ready to learn
Of the power of love


Listen in as Joel Evan discusses his new book Surviving Cancer and Embracing ( available free) On Psych UP Live