Finding out your partner has breast cancer is very difficult and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
Some people describe being on an emotional rollercoaster and their feelings change frequently.
You may have all sorts of questions about what will happen to your partner and what impact breast cancer will have on your life. Some people are scared their partner might die.
It’s normal to be concerned about the future. But try to take things a day at a time rather than focusing on things that may never happen.
Your feelings may begin to settle as the weeks and months go by. But some people continue to find it difficult to cope with how they’re feeling.
If you’re struggling to cope, you could talk to your GP or your partner’s breast care nurse. You may also find it helpful to call Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline.
Knowing how best to support your partner after their diagnosis is not always easy.
Being able to communicate with your partner can be really helpful, and this involves listening and talking.
Listening to your partner
It can be distressing to listen to your partner if they’re feeling very low or want to talk about a difficult topic. You may be tempted to move the conversation on to something lighter.
However, listening to your partner can be really helpful for them, and can help you understand what they’re thinking and feeling.
Useful tips for listening include:
- avoid distractions – sit somewhere quiet and switch off the TV and mobile phones
- let your partner know you’re listening – look at them, nod or make comments
- check you’ve understood what your partner has said – ask questions such as: ‘Do you mean that…?’ or ‘What did you feel like…?’
- avoid talking while you partner is talking – don’t feel you have to rush in if there’s a break in the conversation
There may be times when you’re not in the mood to listen or feel that you’ve heard enough. You could suggest a break from listening and arrange to pick up where you left off later. This can also give you time to take things in and start again feeling more refreshed.
Talking with your partner
Many people with breast cancer find it helpful to talk about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling.
Try to gauge how much your partner wants to talk. If they begin to tell you something about their cancer, ask them if they want to talk more about it.
Talking can help you and your partner to understand each other. But there may be times when one of you doesn’t feel like talking or when you can’t talk openly.
Often being able to talk comes down to finding the time and space to do so. It might be helpful to set aside a time when you’re able to talk undisturbed, somewhere you both feel at ease. Some people find it easier to talk when they’re walking or eating together.
Sometimes you and your partner may prefer just to talk about everyday things. Having a ‘normal’ conversation can help you both feel that cancer hasn’t taken over your life.
Communicating in other ways
There are other ways to show your partner you care, such as:
- physical affection, like a kiss or a hug
- if possible, going away together for a weekend and enjoying each other’s company in different surroundings
- simple gestures such as tidying the house, washing up or making breakfast
- inexpensive gifts, surprises or written notes for your partner
Your partner may find it supportive if you go to appointments with them. Or they may prefer to go to some or all of their appointments on their own.
If they do want you to go with them, you may find it helpful to talk about how involved they want you to be in any discussions and to plan any questions you want to ask.
If you’re working, taking time off to attend appointments may not always be easy. Try to find out how long your partner will be in hospital and how long any treatment sessions and courses last. Then try to come to a suitable arrangement with your employer. Some employers may expect you to use paid or unpaid holiday, while others are more flexible.
Many people want to carry on doing as much as possible during their treatment. However, side effects can often make it more difficult to continue with everyday activities.
Offering to do tasks such as shopping, cleaning, washing or gardening can be a very useful and practical way of offering support.
It might be best to ask your partner what they would like you to do, so they can continue to do the things they want to do themselves. This will help them feel in control.
Talking to other people
Don't be afraid to ask for support from the people closest to you. It can help to talk to friends or family about how you’re feeling.
Occasionally you may feel very alone, even if you have friends and family around you. It can seem that no one else really understands what you’re going through.
You can also call Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline on 0808 800 6000.
Looking after yourself
To be there for your partner, you need to look after yourself. Make sure you eat properly, get some regular exercise and try to get a good night’s sleep.
While supporting your partner is important, it’s also essential that you have some time for yourself. This could be going for a walk, having a drink with a friend or spending part of your day writing your thoughts in a diary. Allow yourself this time without feeling guilty.
Coping at work
Some people find it difficult to cope with work. If this is the case, you could consider talking to your employer about what would help you manage. You may be able to work flexible hours or take time off to be with your partner.
Look at ways to try to ease the pressure of your work. If your employer has an occupational health adviser, they may be able to offer support at work.
When your partner is diagnosed with breast cancer it will often change your relationship with them.
Some couples become closer. But if your partner was previously independent and becomes emotionally or practically dependent on you, this can put a strain on your relationship.
There may be times when you feel trapped and consider ending the relationship. These feelings are most likely to occur if you and your partner had problems before the breast cancer.
It may help to talk through your difficulties with your partner.
Many people don’t like the idea of counselling, but discussing your feelings with someone impartial can help you both to see things more clearly and work towards resolving your differences. Organisations like Relate offer relationship counselling.
Some couples find that despite trying everything to save their relationship, their feelings for each other are not strong enough to keep them together. The stress of breast cancer can add to the pressure the relationship is under and ending the relationship becomes inevitable.
Sex and intimacy
Being diagnosed with breast cancer will almost certainly affect how your partner feels about sex and intimacy.
Changes to your partner’s body may also affect how you feel about them sexually. Getting used to looking at these changes may help make being intimate easier in the long term. Sometimes, the longer you leave this for, the harder it can be.
You may both be too tired even to think about sex. Or you may want to have sex but both be nervous about how it will feel.
If you’re frightened of hurting your partner during sex, let them know how you feel. Otherwise they may think you don’t find them sexually attractive anymore and feel rejected.
Although it’s important not to make any demands on your partner, it’s equally important that you don’t ignore your own feelings as this may lead to resentment or frustration.
You may be able to discuss and explore ways to have sex or be intimate that are comfortable and satisfying for you both. And, given time, the way you approach sex together can bring you closer.
If you’re having problems, you and your partner might find it helpful to talk to the breast care nurse or GP. If you continue to experience difficulties, you might find it useful to contact a specialist organisation like Relate or the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), or to discuss your feelings with a counsellor, either together or separately.
Some breast cancer treatments can affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant in the future.
If having children is important to you and your partner, fertility preservation can usually be offered before starting treatment. You and your partner can ask the specialist or breast care nurse about the different choices available and ask for a referral to a fertility specialist.