The Fallible Caregiver Series: Finding Strength and Connecting to Empathy

I consider my wife and I a relatively young couple. Rebekah is 35, and I'm 45. We've been married for 8 and a half years. Rebekah has been fighting stage 4 breast cancer for about 8 of those years. Her re-diagnosis came just months into our new marriage.

Breast cancer and routine scans

Breast cancer has acted as a bully that barged in and inserted a host of new–negative–clauses and conditions into the marriage agreement. We sealed the deal, signed the contract, and then cancer kicked in the door and threw a wrench into our well-oiled gears. Thankfully, our vows cover all contingencies that not even cancer can wreck.

Scanxiety setting in

One example of a wrench in the gears is when Rebekah has to get her routine scans done. Every 3 months, she gets an MRI of her brain and a PET scan of her body. I know from experience that for about 2-3 weeks before her scans, I will be mainly on my own. As the day draws closer, her scanxiety begins to set in.

I know this is a time I will be neglected. Rebekah starts to retreat within herself and is often quiet. She suffers sleepless nights of worry and fear, thinking upcoming scans will reveal the end. I understand her actions (somewhat) and can't fault her for them. Yet, it's still difficult for me to live with my wife and not have her "there" or consider me.

During these times, I feel alone and frustrated. I feel, well, needy!

Connecting to empathy as a caregiver and spouse

So, how do we, as the other half, find the strength to continue loving forward when we get little or nothing reciprocated? How do we find strength in our relationship when we need attention and love?

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The key element we need to bring ourselves back to is empathy. Putting myself in Rebekah's shoes helps me most in these times. I imagine her diagnosis is mine, and I'm facing what she is facing. I try to make myself feel what that would be like.

Damn. That's scary! My impulse is to get out of that place as fast as I can and return to my "normal" undiagnosed life. I so don't want ever to go back to that place. But that is where my wife lives every day. If it were me, I'd likely be drunk, depressed, and mean. I'd lash out because of the fear, anger, and hurt inside me. But she does nothing like that. She's quiet, and I realize I'm acting selfishly.

3 ways empathy strengthens me

When I feel needy, I want my spouse to change and come to my rescue. I want them to fix me. But what if they just can't? We have 2 options then. We can complain and make everyone around us miserable. Or we can try to change ourselves and find the strength to love like adults. Empathy is a huge key to doing this.

It softens my heart

First, empathy breaks my heart and softens it. Often, when I feel needy and neglected, my first instinct is to get frustrated and angry. Angry at my spouse (or God). My heart gets hardened, and nothing good comes from hard, angry hearts. They're like bone-dry sponges. Empathy is the water that brings my heart back to life and makes me human again.

It provides perspective

Second, empathy gets my focus off me and my immediate desires. Thinking and feeling like this helps me zoom out and get out of my bubble. It provides a broader perspective than my immediate feelings and reminds me the world and life are vastly larger than me.

It motivates me

Third, empathy helps me to continue loving her despite running on fumes. I can do this. I will survive this short time. She needs me more than ever right now. I don't need her more than ever right now. My wife is terrified and needs someone to stay strong for her.

Empathy is a proactive practice

Like forgiveness, empathy is not a one-and-done event. I must proactively practice this mental and emotional exercise because I can quickly forget and re-focus on myself. I need to stop and empathize with my wife's situation repeatedly; when I do, one word always spills out first. Damn. Often, it's a more scandalous word.

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