‘Protecting’ Your Spouse or Partner When One of You Has Cancer

Silhouettes holding hands walking at sunset“Sam” and “Ellen” have been married for 42 years. They have had a good life together. They’ve raised 4 children and have 11 grandchildren. They’ve had their ups and downs but have always managed to get through the hard times, until now.

Sam’s diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer has really thrown them for a loop. They’ve just had their first visit with the oncologist, who was very nice and explained things very well. However, out of the entire visit, each of them only really heard one thing. Sam heard that treatment will make him impotent, and Ellen heard that the 5-year survival rate is around 30% (American Cancer Society, 2012).

Sam isn’t bothered by the survival rate. If he can’t make love to Ellen, though, he feels like he might as well be dead. Of course, he isn’t going to tell her that because they don’t talk about such things. Sam has never been a big talker. He likes to go for long walks in the woods with his dogs when he has something on his mind; he takes care of his problems by himself. If Sam were to tell Ellen how he felt, he would find out that Ellen would be very understanding. She would be happy to explore other ways to express intimacy with him. He would not be any less of a man in her eyes, which contrasts sharply with how he envisions himself after treatment, as no man at all. Also, if Sam shared this feeling with his oncologist, he would find out that many men feel this way. But, because Sam keeps things to himself, he doesn’t know any of this, so he suffers alone and in silence.

Ellen is terrified that Sam is going to die in the very near future. She cannot fathom life without Sam. He is her rock, her solace. She wants to talk to him about the cancer and how it’s impacting them but finds she can’t do it without crying. She knows it makes Sam uncomfortable when she cries, so she keeps putting it off. Besides, she doesn’t want to upset him. She wants to be his rock now. Sam doesn’t need to know how scared she is. It won’t help anything. It will just make him feel bad. So, Ellen tries to be cheerful all the time around Sam. She cries when Sam is not around and suffers alone and in silence.

Sam and Ellen go on like this, “protecting” each other, not “burdening” each other, and being “strong” for each other. They become increasingly distant. Are they really helping each other? What can we learn from them?

First, it is not possible to “protect” your spouse or partner from what is happening. Provided you and your spouse or partner have access to all the same medical information, there is nothing you are thinking or feeling that your spouse or partner probably hasn’t already thought or felt. Sharing your thoughts or feelings with them will not cause them to feel worse but will actually be somewhat of a relief to them for several reasons: 1) it will break an uncomfortable silence, 2) it will let them know that they are not alone in how they feel, 3) it offers a chance to clear up any misconceptions you may have about what the other is thinking or feeling, and 4) it will allow you to offer support to each other.

Also, by not sharing what you are thinking and feeling, you create more distance between you and your spouse or partner. You are prevented from getting the support you need at a time when you need it the most. You are also robbing your spouse or partner of the opportunity to provide you that support in a situation where that may be the only thing there is to offer.

Men often try to solve problems by fixing them. Women often try to make things better by being terrific caregivers—for example, cooking a favorite dish. Cancer is a problem that no one has control over. However, people do have control over whether they turn towards or away from each other as they cope with it. Don’t be like Sam and Ellen.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
-Joseph Campbell

Please feel free to comment on this article and offer any suggestions you have for future topics you’d like to see addressed here.

Related articles:
Good Communication Skills and Cancer
Managing Fear and Uncertainty while Living with Cancer
Cancer and Sexuality

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gillian

    Gillian

    January 27th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    When you are that devoted and committed to someone it is only natural to feel like you have to protect them from the pain of the situation. But I think that the better thing to do is to realize that we are human and that we have limitations and that while there is nothing that you can do to to protect them from the pain, you can be there to help them through it. And some people will want this shoulder and support and initially some people won’t. But the thing to remember is just to be there for them when and if they come to need you.

  • penelope

    penelope

    January 28th, 2012 at 5:29 AM

    There are a lot of things in life you can protect loved ones from but unfortunately cancer is not one of them. You can say all of the right things and do all of the right things, but cancer is bound to affect all of our lives at some point in time. It must be especially hard when it hits someone who is naturally strong and does not see the devastation of the disease coming. But you have to continue to support them just like you always have and together you will get through it. You can always educate them and yourself.

  • scot s

    scot s

    January 29th, 2012 at 6:40 AM

    Just remember that you can’t turn aawy from your spouse in this time of need. This is when he or she is going to need you the most. Why would you choose this time to turn away from them?

  • alan

    alan

    January 30th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    sometimes this kind of an attempt to shield and protect a near one can backfire.it has happened with me in the past and although I do not want to think about it now,I can tell you that being frank and open about things is probably the best way forward.assuming that something needs to be hidden often does more harm than good.

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