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How to maintain a healthy relationship throughout the cancer journey

Upon learning of a cancer diagnosis, most patients and their families are faced with the harsh reality of learning how to live and deal with a new challenge. Cancer can easily take center stage among a couple trying to navigate through the journey.

Rather than allowing cancer to call the shots, Gabriela Gutierrez, PhD(c), MS, MFTI, a doctoral student at Loma Linda University (LLU) Cancer Center advises families to learn how to support one another (both patient and spouse) by taking a closer look at who they are as individuals and couples first and acknowledging cancer as a problem to be tackled, rather than a defining entity of the relationship itself.

Gutierrez encourages couples to make time to get know each other once more. It’s important to remember cancer does not dictate who you are as a couple or take away the ability to connect emotionally, physically and mentally. Here are some ways to work through cancer as a couple and learn how to grow with one another.

Externalize the illness. Make the problem the problem and not the person. According to Gutierrez, the patient or their partner will often internalize the problem, rather than putting it all out on the table. It’s important to take the problem outside of the person and make it tangible for couples and families to work through it together. There is a huge difference between “I am cancer” and “I have cancer.” The same goes for “I’ve changed my family” versus “Cancer has changed my family.”

Initiate the conversation. Allow the conversation to begin. This can be as simple as asking “Do you want to talk about cancer at all?” or “What do you need?” Gutierrez recommends for the spouse, partner or family member to be a part of the process and stay proactive in helping them along the way.

Create boundaries around the illness. Define when and where you want to talk about cancer, if at all. Find other topics of interest to discuss and share with one another.

Create a new normal. Gutierrez encourages patients and their loved ones to shift their expectations of what is normal. For the patient, it’s important to ask “What are my new responsibilities now that I have cancer?” There may come a time to re-designate roles and responsibilities within the family to accommodate the illness. “Normality is not defined by the absence of a problem; rather well functioning families can be determined through their collaborative problem-solving abilities,” says Gutierrez. “Cancer is a relational illness, we all have to accommodate.”

Tailor intimacy. Patients often experience biological, physical, social and psychological changes during the cancer journey, says Gutierrez, which can alter the role intimacy and sex play in a relationship. She says that it’s common for couples to grieve their sexual relationships and that without a sex drive it can be hard to connect. “Cancer can shift arousal, but it doesn’t have to take away one’s desire,” Gutierrez says. “Desire is mental and can be regrown.” She encourages couples to ask the following questions: “What role did sex or intimacy have in our life?” and “Are there other connections in the relationship that can create a similar feeling?”

Cancer is unique

Gutierrez says there is no right or wrong way to go through cancer. It’s important that patients and their spouses remember that cancer cannot take away who they are as individuals or as a couple, she says. In fact, it can offer a sense of empowerment.

“Cancer is unique to each person and to each family, but it doesn’t take away anyone’s voice or power to live life,” Gutierrez says.

Resources available

LLU Cancer Center offers a variety of resources and support for both patients and their loved ones. Support group meetings for women only, prostate patients and breast cancer patients of all ages are available. Year-round events are open to patients and their families. Check the Center’s event page or call 1-800-782-2623 for additional information.

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