Cancer is undeniably a difficult disease to live with. But can you imagine how hard it is for a couple to deal with this disease together? Some of the challenges a couple normally deals with are body image issues, sadness and self-esteem concerns.
But there is no need to worry. There is hope for couples dealing with this deadly illness. Michael Uhl, MA, MDiv, LMFT, mindy-body therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center and licensed marriage/family therapist, shared with Brandi Walker his tips for couples battling cancer, how they can draw closer in their marriages, and what impact he thinks it has on a couple spirituality.
Brandi Walker: What are some of your tips for couples battling cancer?
Michael Uhl: From what I have seen, the vast majority of couples stay together if they are willing to work together. I tell my patients that “you are going through a crisis – an unwanted and unplanned event. It disrupts most of your life, but it doesn’t mean that your life has to fall apart.” When you look at a crisis moment in a relationship or marriage, such as cancer, it can be compared to the heat in a welding torch. With the heat of the moment or crisis, you can either cut a piece of metal apart or bind two pieces together.
As a practicing marriage counselor for nearly four decades and a Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) at Midwestern Regional Medical Center (Midwestern), I provide the following tips to my patients and their significant others to help them bind together:
1. Keep communication open: Communication does not mean agreement, but rather mutual understanding. Honesty and transparency are two tools for increasing closeness.
2. Rely on developed skills: Most couples do not realize that they already have the tools to cope with cancer based on previous crises. Remembering how they overcame difficult situations in the past may help a couple develop coping strategies in the current situation.
3. Allow room for a “time out”: Cancer can cause feelings of anger and depression. Allow your partner to feel their emotions and be comfortable with him / her taking a moment alone. The end goal is to fight the cancer, not one another.
4. Remain intimate: Intimacy does not necessarily equal sex. In fact, cancer treatment side effects often make sex uncomfortable. Instead, intimacy means spending time together – holding hands, reading together, talking, etc.
5. Find time to do the things you love: Take time to play and have fun together – fishing, going to a movie, playing a board game, or even watching a sports game on TV.
6. Boost your support network: When a significant other is diagnosed with cancer, the caregiver is tasked with extra responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help, giving your partner a chance to take a break and process his or her emotions.
7. Find other couples in a similar situation: These couples, often found in support groups, may understand what you are going through. Don’t be afraid to seek tips and advice from others, as well as share what you have found works in your own relationship while recognizing that each couple’s experience is unique.
8. Keep each other accountable: Cancer causes stress, and stress compromises the immune system. Remind each other to participate in healthy activities to remain resilient – getting plenty of rest, eating nutritious meals and exercising.
9. Don’t blame each other: Many people blame themselves or their loved ones for getting cancer, including being too stressed out, working too hard, or smoking. Realize there are many factors that contribute to cancer, not just one.
10. Speak with a therapist: Speaking with a therapist, who is unbiased and has experience with other cancer patients, can help couples express their emotions, confirm that the feelings they are experiencing are normal, and help provide useful coping tools.
B.W.: How can they especially cope with this disease during the winter season?
M.U.: It does not seem like that there is much variability between seasons. Some people are activated as much by the winter as they are the summer. Yes, there are seasonally-affected depression disorders due to the lack of sunlight, but coping with cancer will always be difficult. It’s important that couples refer to the tips above and see a licensed therapist if they are struggling.
B.W.: How can they draw closer in their marriage despite this disease?
M.U.: The goal of any marriage is to get closer every year. Cancer is a curveball thrown at couples, but they still can continue to get closer in the midst of a diagnosis. Couples should understand that they already have some of the tools in their toolbox to deal with cancer together. These are the same tools that they used in previous crises. Think of it this way: we use the same tools on our lawnmower that we do on our cars. However, we may need newer tools or to upgrade them if the project is larger. When it comes to cancer, a couple may need to speak with a licensed therapist to obtain those upgraded communications tools to tackle this new challenge, but they need to build on the foundation they already have.
As a Mind-Body therapist at CTCA® at Midwestern, I help couples become stronger and draw closer by educating them on how to communicate more efficiently. Sometimes, when a couple is moving apart, it is because they are stuck in a destructive pattern. I help them see these patterns and guide them on alternative behaviors. For example, if a husband shows frustration with his wife, she may be hurt by his actions and withdraw. But communication is always about mutual understanding – if they understand the pattern and that it is harmful for their relationship, they can break the pattern and have a much better interaction.
The other thing to note is that when in a crisis, the bigger the crisis is, the more support you need. Couples should feel comfortable reaching out to others in their support circle and not be afraid to ask for help. Cancer is not an individual sport, but a team sport.
The tips that I provided earlier can also help couples draw closer in a marriage despite a cancer diagnosis.
B.W.: When do you think is the right time to tell your mate about your cancer diagnosis?
M.U.: Hopefully, a couple is in the same room, face-to-face with a caring medical provider when a diagnosis is delivered. Most couples are better off hearing it at the same time. However, I have heard too many horror stories about receiving a diagnosis on the cell phone while driving. Since trust is foundational in a relationship, hiding important issues like a cancer diagnosis is not recommended.
B.W.: What impact does cancer have on a couple’s spirituality?
M.U.: A crisis like cancer tests or tries your whole existence, so this trial will also impact your spirituality. For a Christian, a trial is an opportunity to build a deeper trust in God. In addition, this is an opportunity to learn important life lessons like “I am mortal,” or the chance to reassess priorities, legacies, etc.
Again, this is an opportunity for a couple to grow together as they examine and discuss how this is impacting their spirituality as individuals. If this becomes a struggle, it may be helpful for the couple to seek out a spiritual counselor.
For more information on Uhl, visit http://www.cancercenter.com/midwestern/doctors-and-clinicians/michael-uhl/.