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When a Spouse Has Cancer: What to Do and How to Cope

Being a caregiver for a spouse who has cancer may be the toughest job you’ll ever have. It may also be the most vital and the most rewarding. As the spouse, you become part of the cancer treatment team. At times, your loved one may be so busy fighting cancer that you need to be his or her eyes and ears.

Your role may involve bathing, dressing, feeding, keeping track of medications, and getting your loved one back and forth for doctor visits and treatments. Sometimes, your most important role is to simply provide support and be the person your loved one can share feelings and fears with.

Some spouses take on this job naturally, while others need help from a support network. There are those who may try to take on too much. There is no right or wrong way to be a good spouse for someone with cancer, but you can use strategies to help you in this role.

What you may be doing and how to prepare

Your responsibilities may include giving drugs, reporting side effects, helping to decide on treatment plans, taking notes and asking questions during doctor visits, and being the liaison between your spouse and the cancer treatment medical team.

Here’s how you can become better prepared:

  • Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about your spouse's specific type of cancer. Your knowledge about the disease prepares you to deal with your spouse's changing needs, participate in important decisions, ask the right questions, and be the best advocate you can be for your loved one. 

  • Organize yourself. Adding the responsibility of cancer caretaker to your other responsibilities is a big undertaking. Stay on top of tasks by making a daily schedule. Also, write things down, delegate some responsibilities to friends and family, and keep a list of all key phone numbers handy.

  • Keep your spouse in the loop. Allow your spouse to participate in decision-making as much as possible. Encourage him or her to share feelings with you, and take the time to listen.

  • Create a support team. You can't do this job alone. In addition to relying on friends and family members, make use of community resources for help with cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and home care.

Take time to take good care of yourself

Caregiving takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on the caregiving spouse. It may seem overwhelming at times. You may feel like you have to do it all, but you don't and you can't.

At times you will feel sad, lonely, guilty, and even angry. These are normal emotions, and talking to somebody about them may help you cope better. It’s vital to your well-being, and even to your spouse’s well-being, to step out of your role as caregiver at times and attend  to your own needs.

These needs include seeing your own doctor for checkups, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Make sure to connect with friends, and don't give up the activities you enjoy — get plenty of exercise, work in the garden, or play with your kids or grandkids.

Sometimes, caregiving spouses get overwhelmed and need someone to take care of them. Watch out for these signs of trouble:

  • Feeling excessively angry with your spouse

  • Having trouble sleeping or eating

  • Being sick all the time

  • Feeling extremely tired all the time

  • Losing interest in things you once enjoyed

  • Isolating yourself from friends and family

  • Feeling constantly sad, hopeless, and helpless

  • Having trouble concentrating and making good decisions

  • Thinking about death or suicide

If you find yourself struggling to cope, ask your doctor for help. Your doctor may suggest counseling from a mental health professional. You might also consider joining a support group. The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute are great resources for help and support.