Talking to Your Spouse or Life Partner

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If you are married or living together in a committed relationship, your spouse or partner is likely to feel the greatest impact from your diagnosis with breast cancer. It’s natural for your partner to fear for your health and well-being and feel concerned about what will happen over the long term. Since the two of you run a household together, you’ve probably grown accustomed to certain roles and responsibilities. Your partner may wonder what will happen if you cannot always handle your usual tasks, whether that means earning income, caring for children, paying bills, preparing meals, or any of the other activities of day-to-day life.

Breast cancer can intensify whatever patterns of communication existed in your relationship before. If you and your partner have always been able to talk through difficult issues, that ability will probably work well for you now. If open communication has been difficult, you might need to do some extra work to talk about cancer and what it means for your relationship and your household.

Although every relationship is unique, you may find it helpful to:

  • Involve your partner in medical appointments when possible. By coming with you to doctor’s appointments, your partner will gain a firsthand understanding of your diagnosis, the treatment options, and any side effects you might experience. Your partner will be better prepared for how you’ll be feeling, and you won’t need to explain everything your doctor said after every appointment. And if your partner has a question, he or she can ask your doctor directly.
  • Be clear about your needs. Tell your partner exactly what you need. On some days, you might want to hand off certain household tasks that you typically handle, such as cooking or supervising homework if you have children. You might ask your partner to field phone calls from concerned friends, talk through treatment options with you, or simply sit with you at the end of a long day. Try not to assume that your partner will be able to sense how you’re feeling or what you need.
  • Ask your partner what he or she needs. As you, your family, and friends focus on your treatment and recovery, it is easy for your partner to feel lost or overburdened. Talk to your partner about what he or she needs to get away and recharge. Encourage regular exercise, outings with friends, or any other activities your partner enjoys.
  • Schedule time alone, just the two of you. This can be especially challenging if you have children, but it’s important. Schedule regular times for you to get away from distractions so you can talk — not just about cancer, but about anything you have been thinking or feeling.
  • Accept the fact that you may have different coping styles. Each person responds to a cancer diagnosis differently. You may want to do lots of research, while your partner may prefer to rely solely on the doctor’s guidance. One of you may be consistently upbeat and optimistic, while the other may need to ask all of the “What if?” questions. Talk about your differences and tell your partner what works best for you.
  • Figure out what adjustments will be needed in the household, and then ask for help together. While you’re going through treatment, there are likely to be times when you cannot help with tasks such as household chores, shopping, errands, and caring for children and pets you may have. You may have to cut back on work time, which could impact household income. Your partner might need outside support to keep the household running smoothly. Work together to figure out what kinds of help you need, and then approach family members, friends, and neighbors for assistance.
  • Prepare for possible changes in your sexual relationship. Surgery, chemotherapy, and other treatments for breast cancer can affect you both physically and emotionally. Your body may feel and look different, and at times you may feel weak, nauseous, or tired. If you are a premenopausal woman, chemotherapy and some hormonal therapies can cause temporary menopausal symptoms or push you into permanent menopause, lowering the levels of estrogen in your body. Your sex drive may lessen and you could experience vaginal dryness and irritation. Talk honestly and openly with your partner about these changes and ask for understanding while you are going through treatment. To learn more, please visit our Sex and Intimacy section.
  • Get professional help if you need it. A cancer diagnosis can place a great amount of stress on even the strongest relationships. A therapist, counselor, or social worker can help guide you and your partner through difficult conversations if you are having trouble communicating. If you’re interested in finding a professional to talk to, ask your doctor for recommendations.

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