The following are resources for partners, families and friends of those diagnosed with breast cancer:
Emotions and Cancer by the Cancer Society NZ
This is a great Guide with a Carer’s section called Supporting Someone with Cancer
My Partner’s Got Breast Cancer from Breast Cancer Care UK
This section from Breast Cancer Care UK is for anyone who is in a relationship with someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It aims to give you a better understanding of your situation and offers tips to help you look after yourself and your partner, both now and in the future.
Being the partner of someone with breast cancer can be a very difficult period in your life. Many people refer to the experience as a ‘rollercoaster ride’. The high and low feelings you may go through, including shock, acceptance, fear, relief, anxiety and strength, can have a huge impact, both physically and emotionally.
The kind of relationship you and your partner share can affect the way you deal with their diagnosis, both together and individually. Some couples find that the situation brings them closer together while others, especially those who were experiencing problems before the diagnosis, find that it drives them apart.
You may find that because your circumstances have changed people, including your partner, family, work colleagues and even your friends, may have new or different expectations of you. What you expect of yourself as a partner may also change. It can be a demanding time and to cope well it is important to look after yourself as much as those around you.
Being the partner
There is no right or wrong way to feel about finding out your partner has breast cancer. Your reaction can be affected by many things such as where you are at the time, how much you know about breast cancer, who tells you and how prepared you are for the news. Your partner’s reaction to being diagnosed can also influence your feelings.
However you react, actually hearing that your partner has breast cancer can be very tough to deal with. You may not feel prepared for their response, or your own, and be worried about what to say or how to comfort them.
How you may react
Many people talk about feeling shock, disbelief, anger and fear. You may feel you are in emotional turmoil, with all sorts of questions running through your mind about what will happen to your partner and how their breast cancer will impact on your life.
For many people, the immediate response is to put on a brave face and be strong for your partner. This shows to the outside world that you are loyal, but it can also mean that you avoid facing your own feelings. Although you may believe that you are taking control of the situation, your own emotions and needs can be left ignored. Remember that your partner may actually find it comforting to know that you are affected by their diagnosis too.
Focusing all your attention on your partner may also lead them to feel over-protected and stifled. Remember, there will be times when you both need to reflect on what is happening. Allowing yourself and your partner space when it’s needed can help you both gather your thoughts and be better prepared as they go through treatment.
How your partner may react
Understanding your partner’s reaction to their diagnosis may help the way you both cope. Like you, your partner may have days when they feel positive and others feeling devastated and frightened. You may both experience very similar emotions, but not necessarily at the same time.
Sometimes your partner may seem filled with negative feelings about their diagnosis and worry about how it will affect your relationship. They may seem unable to focus on you or anyone else and you may feel for a while that your own needs are being neglected. Underneath, however, your partner may fear your rejection, but find it easier to withdraw than risk being hurt. It is important to let your partner know you are there for them.
Talking to each other
The ability to talk and listen to each other in a meaningful way is an important part of any successful relationship. You may feel that after finding out your partner has breast cancer, the things you talked about before start to seem irrelevant or less important and everyday conversation changes.
Often being able to talk comes down to finding the time and space to do so. It can help to set aside an hour or so when you are both able to talk undisturbed in a setting where you both feel at ease. Don’t be afraid to open the conversation and try to gauge how much your partner wants to talk. There may be questions you want to ask about how they are feeling and what you can do to help. You may find that you can open up and talk to each other comfortably. However, if you sense that your partner is tense, it is important not to bombard them with questions. Instead ease them gently into the conversation. Remember it is very hard to discuss everything at one time so try to be patient.
Learning to listen
Although you may feel like you need to have all the perfect responses for your partner, simply offering to listen can be just as supportive and reassuring. It can be distressing to listen to your partner when they are feeling very low, and you may be tempted to move the conversation on to something lighter. However, really listening to your partner can be good for both of you. If your partner feels that they are able to talk freely, they will be more open to listening and this can help you both to talk and listen to each other.
Communicating in other ways
There are other ways to show your partner that you care. Physical affection, for example a kiss or a hug, can offer a great deal of comfort and give you both a real sense of togetherness, with reassurance that you are there for each other. Going away together for a weekend and enjoying each other’s company in different surroundings can also strengthen the bond between you. Even simple gestures such as tidying the house, washing up or making breakfast in bed can speak volumes without using words.
Coping with it all
Although your partner may need you to be strong and supportive, there will probably be times when you feel under considerable pressure. If this pressure is not released, you may get to a point where you feel that you are unable to cope. Although you are not the person with breast cancer, you are likely to share many of your partner’s feelings. Just as they will need to find ways to deal with the situation, so will you.
Understanding your emotions
You may think that letting your feelings surface is a sign of weakness or being out of control. However, it actually takes courage to show your emotions and there are many positive ways to express them. Our ability to cry is there for a very good reason, though some people find this easier than others. If you feel awkward crying in front of other people, try finding a quiet place where you know you won’t be disturbed. But there is no reason to be ashamed of sharing some tears with your partner. Remember that crying is a natural way of releasing tension and it can go a long way to making you feel better afterwards.
If you do not find an outlet for your emotions early on, they can develop into pent-up frustration, irritability and anxiety, especially if you are taking on extra responsibilities revolving around your partner’s needs. Add to this dealing with your partner’s (and your own) potential mood swings and you may find yourself becoming angry. Anger is a part of human nature, but how you express it can often be negative rather than positive.
Although a certain amount of crying, anxiety or anger is healthy, if you start to feel persistently unhappy or have prolonged feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, you may be depressed. It can be hard to admit to feeling depressed, but talking to someone can help. This may be your partner, a friend or your GP. Depending on how depressed you are feeling your GP may have various suggestions to help you, including exercise, counselling or anti-depressants. Or you can call our helpline and discuss your thoughts with one of our trained Helpline staff.
Looking after yourself
In order to be there for your partner you need to look after yourself. It is important to eat healthily and get enough rest. If you usually do some form of exercise, don’t let this slip from your routine – find the time to do it. If you don’t exercise, now could be a good time to start; even a short walk each day can help.
While helping with your partner’s recovery is important, it is also essential that you take time for yourself. Whether this involves going for a drive, having a drink with a friend or spending an hour or so writing your thoughts in a diary, allow yourself this time without feeling guilty. However, remember there is a difference between getting away for a while and trying to escape the reality of a situation. Using ‘me time’ as an excuse to avoid being with your partner won’t help in the long run.
Strain on your relationship
Many couples find that although breast cancer puts their relationship under a considerable amount of pressure, they come out of it feeling closer than ever. However, the strain of having someone previously independent become emotionally or practically dependent can cause you to feel very burdened. There may be times when you consider escaping altogether and leaving the relationship. These feelings are most likely to surface if you and your partner were experiencing problems before the diagnosis of breast cancer.
If you feel that your relationship was in trouble before the diagnosis, it may help to talk through your difficulties with your partner. Many people do not like the idea of counselling, but discussing your feelings with someone impartial can help you both to see things more clearly and work towards resolving your differences.
What if the cancer comes back?
Many people who have had breast cancer fear it coming back and you may worry about this. It is important to remember that if the cancer comes back in the breast area (local recurrence), it can be successfully treated. If breast cancer returns in another part of the body such as the bones or lung, this is called secondary breast cancer; you may also hear it called metastatic breast cancer. This can be treated, although it is not possible to cure the disease. There is more detailed information about secondary breast cancer and its treatments in our secondary breast cancer section.
Treatment can last for months or several years, and when this is over there will still be check-ups for a while and mammograms to make sure things are OK. When these appointments are due, you may find that memories of what you have been through come flooding back, along with some fears about the possibility of going through it all again. These periods can be very unsettling for you both. Although it is natural to worry, it is important not to let your thoughts be dominated with ‘what if?’ questions and remember that your partner may well be one of the many people who go on to live their lives free of breast cancer.
Life after breast cancer
As treatment varies from person to person, the time it takes to recover varies also. While chemotherapy may last a few months, hormone therapy can continue for several years, so it is important to remember that your partner may be affected for some time.
When your partner does complete their treatment, you may have mixed emotions. It is likely that this will be a strange time for your partner too, and some of the feelings you have may be very similar. The physical and emotional effects of breast cancer may also continue to have an impact on you both after treatment ends.
Part of you will probably be keen to get your life back on track, while part of you may feel like things will never quite be the same as they were before. There may be a huge sense of relief that the treatment is over. However, you may also feel that with no more hospital appointments or extra responsibilities to focus on there is a void to fill. As a result you may be uncertain about how you can support your partner.
This kind of life-changing experience can sometimes help you understand more about your partner and yourself. Having shared and overcome such a challenge could bring you closer together and help make your relationship stronger.
While you are still coming to terms with the emotional impact of your partner’s diagnosis, you will also quickly be faced with practical decisions about treatment that your partner may want you to be involved in. Trying to get to grips with complex information about surgery and drug therapy can be confusing and add to the already overwhelming feelings you may be experiencing.
You may find that learning about breast cancer and the treatments involved helps you to prepare. Having a good knowledge about what is happening can make you feel more confident about talking to your partner and the medical team in charge of their care. Remember that consultants, nurses and other health professionals are there to help, so if something is unclear don’t be afraid to ask.
It can be a good idea to discuss with your partner early on how much you would like to be involved. Some partners say that they feel useless during treatment. Finding a practical role, such as taking notes during appointments or making lists of questions to ask your partner’s consultant, can be a good way of helping you feel that you are providing support.
Attending treatment appointments
When a plan of treatment is made, you will need to decide whether or not you attend your partner’s appointments. Your partner may want you to be there every step of the way or may prefer to go to some or all of the appointments alone.
If you are working, taking time off may not always be easy. Try to find out as much as you can. For example, how long your partner will be in hospital and how long any further treatment sessions and courses last. Use this information to explain to your employer what is involved and try to come to a suitable arrangement. Some employers may expect you to use paid or unpaid holiday, while others can be more flexible.
Side effects to be aware of
Your partner may undergo several kinds of treatment including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy. These can have side effects and although it is your partner who will experience these directly, you may also be affected on some level. Being aware of the possible side effects can help you cope if they occur. For more detailed information see our section on treatments and side effects.
Changes to your partner’s breasts
If your partner needs to have surgery, they may be offered a mastectomy, where the whole breast is removed, or breast conserving surgery, where part of the breast is removed. Surgery will change the physical appearance of your partner’s breast(s). This is something that concerns many people with breast cancer and it is normal for you to find yourself worrying about it too. You may fear how you will react to the look of the breast area after the operation, especially in the early days and weeks when it is likely to be bruised and swollen and scarring is more prominent.
Some couples find it helps to prepare by looking at photographs of people who have had similar surgery. Your breast care nurse or consultant may be able to provide these, or you may be able to find images on the internet. Others feel that looking at the scar together after the operation makes it easier to accept the new appearance of the breast area.
Chemotherapy can cause hair thinning and loss, which can be very traumatic. For some people scalp cooling, which involves wearing a ‘cold cap’ during chemotherapy treatment, may help to minimise hair loss. However, if your partner does lose their hair, you may find this very strange to adjust to. Although it can be shocking seeing your partner with no hair, remember it will grow back when the chemotherapy has finished. During this period, some people wear a headscarf, hat or wig, and your partner may like you to help them choose a selection. Although you may find this awkward, being involved to some degree can help you adjust together to the impact of hair loss.
A diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent treatment can cause tiredness. Extreme tiredness and exhaustion is also known as fatigue. Your partner will probably be incredibly tired at times, finding some previously simple things become major tasks. Finding a balance between taking over completely and letting your partner keep enough independence may cause tension.
Your partner’s fatigue may fluctuate; some days they may need to rest for long periods and other days they may be able to carry on as before. Rather than assuming you always need to do everything, it may be useful to ask what you can help with. This can stop your partner feeling helpless or you feeling overstretched.
For some types of breast cancer your partner may be treated with hormone therapy drugs, which are usually taken over a long period of time (usually several years). While taking these, your partner may experience menopausal symptoms including weight gain, hot flushes, vaginal dryness, mood swings and loss of sex drive. Chemotherapy can also bring on these symptoms.
The main aim of treatment is to treat the breast cancer while causing the fewest possible side effects. However, some of the treatments your partner may be offered can cause infertility. This may be temporary or permanent depending upon their age and the treatment they are receiving.
Some women may be overwhelmed by their diagnosis or not want children and so may not raise the issue of fertility. Others can be extremely concerned about future prospects of pregnancy. If you have not yet started or completed your family, preserving fertility may be a priority. If you were planning to have a family before your partner was diagnosed with breast cancer, the realisation that you may not be able to do so can be a huge shock. Some people find this easier to accept than others. However, if you have always wanted children, part of you may blame your partner’s breast cancer for not being able to now. If you are finding this difficult to come to terms with, it might be an idea to discuss your feelings with your partner as they too may be struggling with the impact of infertility.
Effects on your physical relationship
The side effects of treatment and the physical changes your partner experiences as a result of having breast cancer can change your and their attitudes towards sex. For instance, your partner may be worried initially about how changes to their breasts will affect the way you feel about them sexually. If sex was not an important part of your relationship before your partner’s diagnosis then you may not feel particularly concerned. However, if you and your partner previously shared an active sex life, you will probably notice some changes. For further information have a look at our section on sex and intimacy.
One of the most difficult hurdles can be telling your friends and family about your partner’s diagnosis. Before doing this, you and your partner should discuss who you want to tell, and when and how much you want to tell them. At first your partner may be reluctant to let people know. This is perfectly understandable. However, if you have a close network of family and friends it can be more stressful trying to keep the information concealed.
Some people react to the news better than others and some will find it difficult to know what to say. Occasionally, there may be people who are unable to deal with the news and withdraw from you. This can feel hurtful. Perhaps it may help to stay in touch with these people in less direct ways such as by email or letter.
Many friends and family offer their support straight away and go out of their way to do anything to help. There may also be people who want to be supportive but don’t know how to approach you, or worry about intruding on you at a difficult time.
If you and your partner decide that you would like to involve people, it is important to find a way of telling them that you would appreciate their help without putting them under any obligation. Discuss with your partner the things you may be struggling with, so that if people do offer to help you know what to say. It can be useful to offer a choice of tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, shopping or collecting children from school.
There may be times when you feel that although you have plenty of practical help for you and your partner, you don’t have enough emotional support for yourself. You may have a friend or sibling who is always happy to lend an ear, someone who enjoys a night out or a work colleague who makes a good sports partner. If so, try to maintain these relationships and the activities you share; they will help you feel less isolated when people are rallying around your partner.
Dealing with people
You may find that people drop in to see you and your partner. Although this is well intended, unplanned visits can sometimes be inconvenient. It might help to work out with your partner the times and days that are best for you to have visitors and let your friends and family know. This way you will not only appreciate their visits more, but also be less likely to be caught at a bad time, or give your visitors the impression that you’d rather they hadn’t come.
There may also be times when you prefer not to take telephone calls. Leaving the answer machine on so you can respond when you are ready can help in the short term. However, try not to put off calling people back as they may soon think that you are avoiding them.
Families can be complicated and there may be some people that you have a strained relationship with. You may feel that with so much happening in your life it isn’t a good time to be building bridges. Or you may want to put things aside and resolve any issues you have. What is important is that you try not to let any existing tension become worse, especially while you and your partner need to concentrate on each other.
If you have children
If you have children, whatever their age, you may worry about how they will react to your partner’s diagnosis. Very young children may not understand at all, teenagers may not know how to deal with the situation and adult children may feel they should be old enough to cope, but actually find it very hard. However it is important to be open and honest with them as children can often sense that something has happened.
For more information on this take a look at our talking with your children section