When Julie Rodriguez was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, she couldn’t get past that single word: cancer.
Her husband, Ed, helped her. It was the first of many moments in which she had to rely on Ed. He helped her remember her doctor’s instructions, get to appointments ... Most important, he supported her through treatments that took a toll on her emotions and her body.
“This can’t be happening to me,” Julie said, describing her initial reaction. “I’m the caretaker. I have a hard time asking for help. It’s hard for me to ask anybody for anything.”
The partners clinic at City of Hope helped them both. The clinic supports not just women undergoing breast cancer treatment but also their closest caregiver, often a partner or spouse. The staff understands that a cancer diagnosis affects the entire family – and that even the most supportive partners can have a difficult time knowing what to say, what kind of comfort to provide or even what to expect during cancer treatment.
At the clinic, patients and their partners receive guidance on these matters from clinical social workers Matthew Loscalzo, L.C.S.W., the Liliane Elkins Endowed Professor in Supportive Care Programs at City of Hope, and Courtney Bitz, L.C.S.W. Loscalso and Bitz met with Julie and Ed even before Julie met with a surgeon, providing educational and psychological support.
“Having both a male and a female counselor in the conversation was great,” Julie said. “The speech coming from Matt, from the perspective as a counselor, a man and a husband, is just very powerful. I think it helps men relate more to what’s going to be happening.”
For Julie and Ed, there was much to discuss. Julie was accustomed to taking care of Ed, disabled from a previous injury, and had to shift from caregiver to care-receiver. Both of them had to learn how to discuss those changes in their relationship. Then there were the other family relationships for which they needed guidance, such as the one with their 13-year-old nephew, Max, who lives with them and whom they consider their son. The couple also have two daughters, both of whom live nearby, who have offered their help.
“One of the first things they told me was that the cancer of today is not the cancer of 10 years ago,” Ed said. “The treatments are much better. The chances of being cured are way higher than before.”
Julie praises her husband for “stepping up” and taking care of her. Ed is happy he could do so.
“I know that she’s going through a lot, and I know there’s stuff in her that her body doesn’t want in there. I try to handle it the best I can. Sometimes, I slip up,” he said, with a smile. “But only sometimes.”
Now knowing more than they did when they started the treatment process, Julie and Ed offered this advice for other couples confronting cancer:
Learn what to expect. Ed said the partners clinic was especially helpful in preparing him for the changes likely to happen to his wife and to her body. “Everything they said was going to happen, happened,” he said. “They were very, very clear and precise.” When Julie’s treatments affected her moods, he was able to brace for it and help them both cope.
Find back-up. Even the most dedicated and energetic caregivers get tired and need a break. It’s important to accept help, Julie said, especially after the first treatment, when neither the patient nor the partner knows what to expect. Also, say "yes" when friends and family members offer to cook meals – especially ones that can be frozen and saved for those days filled with treatments and appointments. Just having someone visit for a few hours so the caregiver can get some rest or tend to errands can be a relief for a couple.
Go to every appointment together. The partner going through the cancer treatment can become overwhelmed, or forget what was said due to "the chemo fog," as Ed called it. Take notes or record appointments. There’s lots to remember, and the patient will often forget or misunderstand.
Communicate clearly. Julie summed up her advice for couples going through cancer in a single word: listen. Listen to each other’s needs and limitations, and develop a plan for handling those together.
Remember your wedding vows. Julie and Ed made their promises to each other 37 years ago. They’ve never been more important. “For richer and poorer,” Ed said. “In sickness and in health. In good times and bad times. It’s all there, and it kind of sets the course. If you can remember all of those things, and do them, it helps.”