Being the partner

woman and man sitting on bed together

There's no right or wrong way to feel about finding out your partner has breast cancer.

Your reaction can be affected by many things such as where you are at the time, how much you know about breast cancer, who tells you and how prepared you are for the news. Your partner’s reaction to being diagnosed can also influence your feelings. 

However you react, actually hearing that your partner has breast cancer can be very tough to deal with. You may not feel prepared for their response, or your own, and be worried about what to say or how to comfort them.

How you may react

Many people talk about feeling shock, disbelief, anger and fear. You may feel you are in emotional turmoil, with all sorts of questions running through your mind about what will happen to your partner and what impact their breast cancer will have on your life.

For many people, the immediate response is to put on a brave face and be strong for your partner. This shows to the outside world that you are loyal, but it can also mean that you avoid facing your own feelings. Although you may believe that you are taking control of the situation, your own emotions and needs can be ignored.

Focusing all your attention on your partner may also lead them to feel over-protected and stifled. Allowing yourself and your partner space when it’s needed can help you both gather your thoughts and be better prepared as they go through treatment.

How your partner may react

Understanding your partner’s reaction to their diagnosis may help the way you both cope. Like you, your partner may have days when they feel positive and others feeling devastated and frightened. You may both experience very similar emotions, but not necessarily at the same time.

Sometimes your partner may seem filled with negative feelings about their diagnosis and worry about how it will affect your relationship. They may seem unable to focus on you or anyone else and you may feel for a while that your own needs are being neglected. Underneath, however, your partner may fear your rejection, but find it easier to withdraw than risk being hurt.

Talking to each other

The ability to talk and listen to each other in a meaningful way is an important part of any successful relationship. You may feel that after finding out your partner has breast cancer, the things you talked about before start to seem irrelevant or less important, and everyday conversation changes.

Often being able to talk comes down to finding the time and space to do so. It can help to set aside an hour or so when you are both able to talk undisturbed in a place you both feel at ease. Don’t be afraid to open the conversation and try to gauge how much your partner wants to talk. There may be questions you want to ask about how they are feeling and what you can do to help. You may find that you can open up and talk to each other comfortably. However, if you sense that your partner is tense, don’t bombard them with questions. Instead ease them gently into the conversation. Remember it’s very hard to discuss everything at one time so try to be patient.

You may feel there is also a time not to talk. Talking with a friend may help you to get your thoughts clearer, making it easier to talk to your partner.

Talking openly can be difficult. If you and your partner want to seek relationship counselling either together or separately, you can contact an organisation like Relate.

You and your partner may find it useful to read our booklet In it together: for partners of people with breast cancer.

Learning to listen

Although you may feel like you need to have all the perfect responses for your partner, simply offering to listen can be just as supportive and reassuring. It can be distressing to listen to your partner when they are feeling very low, and you may be tempted to move the conversation on to something lighter. However, really listening to your partner can be good for both of you. Try not to feel the pressure to ‘fix the problem’ – you may not be able to. If your partner feels that they are able to talk freely, they will be more open to listening and this can help you both to talk and listen to each other.

Communicating in other ways

There are other ways to show your partner that you care. Physical affection, for example a kiss or a hug, can offer a great deal of comfort and give you both a real sense of togetherness, with reassurance that you are there for each other. Going away together for a weekend and enjoying each other’s company in different surroundings can also strengthen the bond between you. Even simple gestures such as tidying the house, washing up or making breakfast can speak volumes without using words.

Last reviewed: May 2014
Next planned review begins 2017