Resources for the Spouse or Partner

When someone you love is diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, it can bring up a wave of emotions, including fear, shock, sadness, anger, helplessness, and anxiety. Watching your spouse or partner go through challenging treatments and supporting them through their own emotions can have a significant impact on a spouse or partner. Studies have found that the partners or spouses of women with breast cancer experience significant stress, potentially affecting their sleep, ability to work, the allocation of household duties, and sexual intimacy.1

Managing changes in household duties and family care

Partners often take on more of the household tasks when their loved one is diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Depending on the age and stage of your family, this may include taking on a larger role in raising and caring for children. In addition to the family, household management may fall to the partner, including paying bills, cooking meals, doing laundry, and cleaning the house. Bills may also become more complicated with insurance and medical bills.

Before diagnosis and treatment, household duties may have been divided, but someone undergoing treatment may have limited energy and resources for managing their previous tasks. However, you can ask for help with these duties, involving family and friends as appropriate. Many people may want to help but just need specific ideas about how best to do that.

Being a part of medical decisions

Educate yourself on breast cancer and its treatments. It can be helpful to know what to expect, even though each individual responds differently to treatment.1 Your loved one may want you to attend doctor’s visits with them and take notes. You can also help prepare for appointments by creating a list of questions to ask the doctor.

Your loved one may want to discuss treatment decisions with you but remember that they are the one facing breast cancer and will make their own decisions about their care and their life.2 Being supportive of your partner’s decisions, even if they differ from your opinion, can help provide emotional support and strengthen the relationship.

Providing emotional support for your loved one

It can be frustrating and painful to watch someone you love go through difficult cancer treatments. You may want to “fix” things and feel helpless that you can’t. Focus on how you can help, which may mean just spending time sitting beside the person or listening without offering suggestions. Ask your partner how you can best support them.

Getting support for yourself

Taking care of someone can be incredibly stressful and exhausting. It may cause emotional and physical fatigue, depression, and anxiety. While it may seem challenging, try to find time to do the things that you enjoy. Ask for help from family and friends, and seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed by depression or anxiety.

Navigating changes in sexual intimacy

Physical intimacy and sex are important parts of intimate relationships. Women who have had surgery for breast cancer may feel insecure about their physical appearance. In addition, several of the treatments for breast cancer, including chemotherapy and hormone therapy, may cause low sex drive (libido). Women who are experiencing low sex drive may also worry that their partner will leave them.

Communication is the key to maintaining intimacy. Be reassuring and openly ask and talk about what physical acts might feel good for your partner now. Remember there are many ways to engage in physical contact that can keep the physical intimacy strong between you.

Try these communication techniques for creating more emotional closeness3:

  • Take turns answering the questions “Is there something you’ve always dreamed of doing that you haven’t done? Why haven’t you done it?”
  • Make three factual “We” statements, like “we are feeling…” or “we both believe…”
  • Complete the sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
  • Sit down with your partner and take turns sharing five positive traits you see in your partner
Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: December 2018.
View References
  1. Zahlis EH, Lewis FM. Coming to grips with breast cancer: the spouse's experience with his wife's first six months. J Psychosoc Oncol. 2010;28(1):79-97.
  2. Caregiving tips: supporting your spouse or partner with breast cancer. Cancer Care. Available at https://www.cancercare.org/publications/48-caregiving_tips_supporting_your_spouse_or_partner_with_breast_cancer. Accessed 11/6/18.
  3. 36 questions for increasing closeness. Greater Good in Action. Available at https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/36_questions_for_increasing_closeness. Accessed 11/6/18.