When someone hears the diagnosis “cancer,” the world seems to stop. And if that someone is the man in your life, it can be hard to know how to help him emotionally—especially if he’s prone to keeping his thoughts and feelings bottled up.
“When couples struggle through illness together, it’s an opportunity to grow together and as individuals,” says Rhonda Sherman, PhD, oncology psychologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center. “Avoidance of talking about feelings associated with illness is not always healthy for the relationship.”
One of the most important things is to offer unconditional acceptance while listening well, she says. “People want to be heard and understood.”
Also let your loved one know that whatever he feels, you’ll support him. Ask, “What do you need from me?”
As for specific fears and anxieties that may be running through his mind, here’s how she suggests responding:
ISSUE: “I’m afraid I’m going to die.”
How to Help: “You don’t have to say anything,” Dr. Sherman says. “Be present and engaged, give him a hug, hold his hand and listen. You might follow with, ‘I’m sorry if you’re feeling scared. But you, your doctors and I are working together to reach the best outcome possible.’”
ISSUE: “I feel less attractive.”
How to Help: A man diagnosed with cancer may struggle with self-confidence due to changes in his physical functioning, Dr. Sherman says. Reassure him with “We’re in this together. I love you no matter what” and then identify his non-physical traits you admire.
ISSUE: “I’m not hungry” or “I want to be left alone.”
How to Help: Sadness is a common reaction to cancer. If your man has a decreased appetite, is not getting dressed or out of bed, you might say, “You seem sad. How can I help you?” He also may need professional help from a therapist or support group.
ISSUE: “I’m fine.”
How to Help: A mate may try to be “strong” rather than risk worrying you. Or he may assume you can read his mind and know what he’s feeling. But if you don’t express your distress, he may fret that you don’t care.
“You both may be upset, anxious and frightened about the illness or treatment and feel isolated,” Dr. Sherman says. “Gently check in and ask, ‘How are you doing? You look down, are you feeling sad?’ If he says he doesn’t feel like talking, you can say, ‘I understand. I’m here when you’re ready.’”
Also be open, honest and direct about your own feelings.
ISSUE: “I’m going to lose my job” or “With all these bills, we’re going to go broke.”
How to Help: Encourage your spouse to talk with his employer about a leave of absence. Sometimes coworkers combine their vacation time so the patient won’t lose wages.
“But don’t dismiss his fears,” Dr. Sherman says. “Also understand his priorities and values may change. With that comes a desire to change type of work or working at all.”
An Oncology Nurse Navigator may be able to help you with financial and practical resources.
ISSUE: “I’m afraid my cancer will return.”
How to Help: Acknowledge the fear and that it’s common. Talk to him about what may have triggered his anxiety. Perhaps it was a commercial, or the death of a celebrity with the same cancer, she says.
“Then remind him that he’s cancer-free and ‘Let’s focus on the present and what’s important right now.”
“Cancer is scary and unwanted,” Dr. Sherman says, “but many cancer patients say their lives have improved socially, spiritually and psychologically. Their perception about themselves, others and the world has changed. They approach life differently.”