Coping with a partner's breast cancer diagnosis 

The partner of someone undergoing treatment for breast cancer can carry a terrible burden. While trying to care for the person they love, they’re also trying to come to terms with the diagnosis. Pip Bell, a McGrath Foundation Breast Care Nurse, says it’s important carers are cared for too.

A cancer diagnosis can be as overwhelming for partners and friends as it is for the person diagnosed, and can even change close relationships in unexpected ways.

A partner’s reaction can be affected by many things; for example what’s happening in their own life, how much stress they are experiencing and how much they already know about breast cancer.

The partner may feel overwhelmed and shocked when told the news and be worried about what to say or how to provide comfort and support. Disbelief, anger and fear are a part of human nature and are common in relationships touched by breast cancer. Some partners feel they’re in emotional turmoil, which won’t go away, others are pragmatic and seem to take the bad news in a controlled way.

In some situations, the strain of having someone previously independent who becomes emotionally or practically dependent can cause a partner to feel burdened and stressed.

Partner pressure

Sometimes a carer can direct all their energy into helping their partner, leaving their own needs overlooked, by sacrificing the time normally spent on themselves. If the pressure isn’t released, the partner (carer) may get to a point where they feel they’re unable to cope. 

Although they are not the person with breast cancer, they are likely to share many of the same feelings, and the carer will also need to find ways to deal with the situation. 
 
It takes courage to show emotions and there are many positive ways to express them. Crying is a natural way to release tension and if people don’t find an outlet for their emotions early on, their feelings can develop into built-up frustration, irritability and anxiety, especially when a person is taking on extra responsibilities. Add to this dealing with a partner’s and a carer’s potential mood swings and anger can develop.
 
Although carers and partners may feel like they need to have the perfect response, simply offering to listen can be just as supportive and reassuring. 
 
For male partners, MensLine Australia is a good resource to be aware of; it’s a group they can contact to discuss their feelings and seek support from other men who understand their situation. 

Support for carers and partners

Although a certain amount of crying, anxiety or anger is healthy, if a carer or partner starts to feel persistently unhappy, or has prolonged feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, they may be depressed or demoralised. When people are demoralised they have reduced optimism, difficulty coping and they may feel stuck. It can be hard to admit to feeling depressed but talking to someone can help. 
 
Worrying doesn’t fix anything, action plans and partnerships with your loved ones are what will help.
 
I recommend contacting your GP and other organisations for support, such as Cancer Council, Carers Australia, beyondblue, GriefLink, Relationships Australia, Cancer Connect (this is run by the Cancer Council and connects people who have been through a similar experience) and Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).
 
couple heads together

Taking care of yourself 

Just as it’s vital that the people living with a cancer diagnosis take care of themselves, it’s also important for a partner to do the same. I recommend that partners:
  • Remain fit, well and mentally prepared – ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. 
  • Take time to yourself to have a break, recharge energy and clear your mind.
  • Don’t smoke and avoid excess alcohol consumption.
  • Talk with your GP if you’re not coping.
  • Stay focused on the present. Dwelling on things that may or may not happen will only worsen negative feelings.
  • Keep a journal to record feelings and experiences. 
  • Ask how to reach the doctor’s office after hours and for a list of symptoms that may require immediate care. 
  • Stay involved in your partner’s care and express your thoughts in the treatment decision making process.

You might also like to reach out to your support network to help with caring for your partner. An app like Thrivor can help to make it really clear what needs to be done, and friends and family can easily put their hand up for simple tasks.

Manage the everyday with the Thrivor app

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