How Can I Stay Strong Knowing My Wife Has Terminal Cancer?

A couple of weeks ago, my wife of four years drove herself to the emergency room complaining about a burning sensation in her midsection. A battery of tests later, doctors found lesions on her pancreas and liver that were biopsied and determined to be cancerous. She is Stage 4, and the prognosis is terminal. She is 37! She has anywhere from a few months to a year or so, depending on how she reacts to chemotherapy. Needless to say, my world has been turned upside-down—hers too, obviously. I thought we'd have a lifetime together, and here we are facing this greatest of challenges that doctors say cannot be overcome, just delayed. She's a fighter, and I'm sure that will maximize our time together, and I took an indefinite leave of absence from work to be with her and help her. I cannot imagine what she is feeling and going through. I am trying not to let her see how much I am struggling with this. It's still sinking in, of course, but all I want to do is weep and hide and weep some more. I can't cry in front of her and get her down, though. She hasn't yet accepted this diagnosis, but her spirits are better than mine would be, at least on the outside. How do I support my wife through this difficult time without breaking down and taking her with me? How do I grieve and be strong at the same time? How can I be what she needs me to be if I'm always on the verge of losing it? Please help me. —Heartbroken Hubby
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Dear Heartbroken Hubby,

I am so sorry to hear about your situation, and cannot imagine the pain you and your wife must be experiencing as she fights her battle against cancer. Let’s get to the root of your questions.

You love each other. You can’t help being what she needs you to be—she needs you to be you, loving her, and you clearly do. Yes, you will be optimistic if you can and if that helps. Yes, you can cry in front of her after she has had sufficient time to digest the news, and you can cry together to mourn the life that you will not have together, as well as to celebrate the life you have together now and have had to this point. You are grieving. Of course you are grieving. Please allow yourself to grieve in whatever way you need to. Although you say your wife is acclimating to the news better than you are, it’s possible she’s trying to stay “strong” for you, and is grieving inside every bit as much as you are. It’s OK to grieve together. In fact, it could be very helpful. Talk to your wife about what you are feeling and see how she feels about experiencing your grief as a team.

Four years may be a pittance of the time you wished you might have, but it’s also a treasure chest of breakfasts and dinners, fights and laughs, walks and longer journeys, complaints and compliments.

You describe your wife as a fighter, and you sound like you are one, too. You will find ways to be together and do the things you love best. And in those times when grieving in front of your wife doesn’t feel like the thing to do, when you need to scream and holler and let go, it’s absolutely OK to find a private place and do so. You can walk down a busy city street and yell your heart out (I’ve done this myself), or you can hide in the woods and do the same. You can lean on a good friend or family member who will help you mourn and be angry and be thankful, and break apart and heal and hold together.

You have time still to show your love, to enjoy the everyday-ness of being together. Four years may be a pittance of the time you wished you might have, but it’s also a treasure chest of breakfasts and dinners, fights and laughs, walks and longer journeys, complaints and compliments. You will be brave and cowardly, angry and loving, and express all the emotions that humans are capable of feeling, and you will do so both together and separately. All of it is OK. All of it is normal. All of it is whatever you make of it. Please let yourself feel what you feel.

Your wife needs help, yes, but don’t forget that you do, too. You need and deserve supportive people—family, friends, perhaps even groups who will help you through this. You can’t do it alone.

Many hospitals have support groups where people meet and help one another through difficult times. Are you members of a religious or spiritual group? Would you consider working privately with a therapist or counselor—someone just for you, or someone for you both? I highly recommend the empathic support of a therapist to help guide you through the range of emotions you’re feeling right now, especially a therapist who specializes in grief, loss, and bereavement.

I hope you can feel the love and peace that I wish you both.

Take care,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • 22 comments
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  • Logan

    Logan

    September 5th, 2015 at 11:23 AM

    This kind of diagnosis can be so hard on the family especially when it comes from out of left field. It is then like there has been no time to prepare for it and your loved one who is facing it is having a tough tie coming to terms with that diagnosis. You do need to be strong for her as she doesn’t have that much time, but in the same vein you also have to find a place where you feel comfortable getting some help for what you need to. There are so many loved ones and support groups who would probably love to help the two of you during what I am sure is a very difficult time.

  • carin

    carin

    September 6th, 2015 at 7:56 AM

    Is it wrong to feel like you have to be her rock right now, and you have to wait to take care of yourself later?

  • Rebecca T.

    Rebecca T.

    September 6th, 2015 at 7:24 PM

    I think you already did the most important thing, and that is the indefinite leave of absence. You are a very loving, and selfless person. Don’t feel guilty, or like you have to go back to work before your time with her is over. Everything you don’t have, or have to replace, or whatever, just isn’t important and you can work and get them later. It’s about her. And it seems to me the hours spent at work, are wasted time. Don’t worry if you have an argument, because they will happen. Just remember an argument doesn’t mean you have to be mad or distant. Put love above all other possible things. Because the only thing that time won’t give back to you, is your wife.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    September 6th, 2015 at 8:54 PM

    My husband of eleven years died from cancer. He was diagnosed on Christmas Even in 2012 and died on June 5, 2013. That six months contained some of the most challenging, yet precious moments of our life together. I too felt the need to ‘be a rock’ for him, almost ‘robotically’ moving through those initial weeks he was hospitalized. It was important for him to get things in order and I was there to support him in the process. There were so many decisions that had to be made medically, financially, logistically, etc. Those things mattered to him. Though my heart hurt and all I wanted to do was hold him, I knew supporting him in taking care of those things was what mattered TO HIM in that moment. It was what he needed in order to begin his process of letting go. Once he felt things were in order, time changed. Moments seemed to stand still. Things that once seemed so inconsequential in life suddenly became precious – every conversation, touch, laugh. There were times when I felt totally helpless. I didn’t know what to do or say. All I wanted was to take the pain and hurt away from him. We just wanted our life back again. We talked those things through. We grieved the loss of the life we had and the life we never would. Sometimes he just needed me to be there. Sometimes he was just scared and wanted me beside him. Sometimes he just needed time to be alone. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is no right or wrong way in how you live and love through this time. You will experience every emotion possible…and some you can’t comprehend. There will be days you think you can’t take another step – but you will. There will be moments you think you can’t breathe because the grief is so heavy – but you will somehow breathe anyway. Just be honest and genuine with one another and walk the journey together one step at a time.

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    This is simply what you have to do when you have a loved one who becomes ill. It has to be about making the last few months of their lives as pleasant as possible even when that means giving up some of the things that you like to do for right now. She would do this for you so I feel like this is what you owe her in return.

  • Karen S

    Karen S

    September 7th, 2015 at 10:47 PM

    I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 11/13. (I’ve since learned it may have only been stage 3 as the liver metastasis was benign at surgery on 3/15.) I did extensive conventional
    and alternative treatment (all stuff from health food stores/amazon and a couple prescriptions which did slow things way down. I resisted the surgery for over 7 months after chemo/radiation and was still a candidate for surgery when it was time. Also, I know of someone with pancreatic cancer who was expected to live only months and who was diagnosed 14 months ago and with his ongoing chemo regimen, has returned to work and seems to have no end in sight. He will be on chemo he is told forever, but has a really good quality of life. He was told that only about 1% have long term survival and he realized that someone had to be in that 1%. I’m just saying that you never know, maybe it’s not too late. After being diagnosed almost 2 years ago, I was given the all clear, NED.

  • Gladys

    Gladys

    September 8th, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    I really love the concept of the two of you working together and confronting this sort of grief as a team.

  • rita

    rita

    September 17th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    I don’t think that her being able to see exactly what you are feeling would be disheartening to her. In some ways this might give her even more of a reason to fight and beat this thing.

  • Tahir

    Tahir

    March 29th, 2016 at 2:35 AM

    It’s heartbreaking to read and deja vu for me. My wife aged 36 and a doctor by profession and similarly went for CT scan & biopsy herself after pain in liver region, the diagnosis in end-September 2014 hitting me in the face i.e. stage-IV with multiple mets everywhere in the liver. Her brave fight in form of undergoing about 1.5 years of chemo every 2 weeks for me and our 3 kids. She was very fit physically and really beautiful so till the nose dive i.e. when chemo stopped working in last few months, any person could not have guessed her to be a patient of such a deadly disease. She passed away in front of me on the 17th January this year. She had just turned 37.
    Man all i can say is cherish every moment with her so that you don’t have any regrets later. Try to keep her confident that she can make it and that she is doing great. Give her all the love and support you can especially when she needs it after the chemo sessions.
    I hope and pray that your wife gets cured unlike mine.
    Its the kids for whose sake you have step into the everyday work regime rather robotically trying to sidestep domains of thought leading to her memories……

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    March 29th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    Thank you Tahir, for your sad and beautiful letter.

  • darrell

    darrell

    April 4th, 2016 at 1:40 PM

    I am having a hard time my wife has cancer two days before Christmas she was given 6 months to a year to live I don’t want to live alone I need her she cois

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 5th, 2016 at 6:05 AM

    Dear Darrell,
    Your news is very sad and thank you for writing. I am hoping that you have a good support system in place for both of you. Take care and stay in touch,
    Lynn

  • Ferdinand

    Ferdinand

    August 13th, 2016 at 10:48 PM

    My wife has been dealing with stage 4 breast cancer since last year and in spite of the expensive series of the chemotherapy she had, her condition is not getting better. I have 2 teenage boys who are very close to her. We all love her very much. I’m a family physician and I’ve cared for similar cases before but things are different when a loved one is involved. My boys and I have been trying to make as many beautiful memories with her while we still can. I want to do more for her but I’m running out of ideas. My heart grows heavier everyday. How can I deal with my helplessness? How can I make it easier for my kids as they go through this crisis?

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    August 15th, 2016 at 9:55 AM

    Dear Ferdinand,
    I am sorry that your family is enduring this painful experience and my heart goes out to each of you. It sounds to me that you and your boys and your wife are doing beautifully as you make memories together.
    I suggest that at some point, if you are feeling overwhelmed, you join a group of find an individual to work with who will help you by providing a space space where you can release your feelings.
    Please take care,
    Lynn

  • Rick

    Rick

    May 7th, 2017 at 8:32 PM

    I too thought all was over 6 yrs ago when my Wife was diag w stg 4 ovarian cancer. She is still here and at work as a nurse right now. An exceptionally strong woman she asked me to shave her head for the third time today as her regrown hair from the last chemo had thinned and was falling out again. She started taxol again two weeks ago. The third time wasn’t as traumatic as the firs two. I well up w tears yesterday and she says; don’t cry dear. Did I say she was strong! I could go on w tales of her comebacks, my point to you is things could get better and go on 99% for years as thing have gone for us. I have been on the edge of my chair for 6 years ………. I’m rambling. She is a living miracle direct from God. Avastin was supposed to extend her life 9 mos, that was 2.5 yrs ago. Faith helps us greatly, she is from Phils and they all used talcum powder downtown and she got ovarian cancer. Hers is not genetic, the tests have proven that. She prays and we pray and she is still here and doing well. Today was her first time going to work w a wig she got from Dr. This wig is perfect for her face and style, sure enough she called and coworkers and resident patients are raving about her great new look. She needed that. God Bless

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    May 8th, 2017 at 10:29 AM

    Rick, thank you for writing your inspiring story, which gives hope to all who read it.
    I have no words.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Richard L.

    Richard L.

    November 7th, 2018 at 9:45 AM

    My wife has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, she is with her family now as i cannot take care of her properly. I am on the other side of the country , back at work to pay bills.I feel terrible but stayed as long as i could but was slowly going broke and crazy being around so many people i don’t know too well.She is in much better hands as her family has gone thru this 3 times with other siblings.I am so lonely and guilt ridden I think im going crazy, i spend a lot of time crying.We talk every day, but i want to go back to be with her. Im saving up money so i can return to her soon.I wish i could die with her, my heart is broken.She was a palliative nurse for 30 years and is stronger than i am when dealing with this, i feel like one abandoned her even though she is in good hands of her sisters and other family members, to be honest my life is F*****.Guilt , headaches lack of sleep no appetite are my daily battles.I am in Limbo, waiting for her to get really sick so i can return.She feels OK today…tomorrow?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    November 11th, 2018 at 11:11 AM

    Dear Richard,
    You seem to be doing your best for your wife, and I send you both my good thoughts. You write that she was a palliative nurse for 30 years. Would she have advised counselling to someone in your position? What kind of supports do you have for yourself?
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Richard L.

    Richard L.

    November 13th, 2018 at 9:15 AM

    Thank you for your kind words, i was having a bad day and felt a need to vent.I am not suicidal but don’t like seeing and feeling that my wife is going to “cross over” alone and it hurts.We didn’t see this coming and i feel terrible that she has to face things that are scary for me to understand at this time.She is being taken care of by her siblings who have gone thru this 3 times already.I feel like a helpless observer.But i must ride this out and try not to break down so often.I will try to persevere and have positive thoughts…its not easy watch someone die.

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    November 14th, 2018 at 5:07 PM

    Richard, your road is a hard one. Perhaps you can find a counselor to help you on this journey.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Steve

    Steve

    January 4th, 2019 at 8:13 AM

    Hi Lynn
    My story is somewhat similar. My wife of 36+ years was diagnosed this September with stage 4 metastatic(liver) pancreatic cancer. At this time surgery is not a possibility. She is a super fit and positive, focused girl. Has what we believe to be the best treatment plan and being religious, a lot of prayers by family and friends. Still, as other have said, one just moves through it as caregiver. Not thinking, trying not feel anything. Though when the house gets quiet, that is when it is the hardest. How long will she survive? How will I deal with being alone after decades of sharing a life together? I can see the very toxic treatments are wearing her down and the doctor said she can only have them for 5 months since it is just to hard on her body. I have my own health challenges and simply have no time to manage so much responsibilities and a full time job. Im seriously thinking of retiring now vs in a few years because of her illness. Oddly enough she is still working but not consistently. I suppose im just tired and not sure how to handle all of this insanity.
    Thanks For Reading…

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 4th, 2019 at 8:40 AM

    Dear Steve,
    I am so sorry that you, your wife, and your family are facing this illness, but you are facing it together, which helps. Of course you are worn down. The effort of caring for someone you love who is so ill, supporting her emotionally, and facing a possible future without her, takes its toll.
    Your first responsibility as a caring person is to yourself, to keep yourself healthy, to be conscious of the powerful stresses you are facing and find ways to reduce that stress when possible. This will help you and your wife too.
    You write that you are thinking of retiring earlier than you had planned. This is a hard decision that needs careful thought.. Your work may be a source of support for you in ways that you may not have thought about. Can you cut back a bit while you’re caring for your wife?
    Also, I suggest that you need someone to support you, someone who can be present for you and your needs, perhaps a therapist, perhaps a religious leader.
    Thank you very much for writing– please keep in touch.
    Take care,
    Lynn

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