February 11, 2016 | by City of Hope
Jeff Andrews and his wife Heidi were married only three years and raising a 2-year-old son when Jeff was diagnosed with cancer, an experience that brought unexpected challenges to their relationship. Now, a year later, the couple has learned new coping strategies through Couples Coping with Cancer Together, a support group sponsored by City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine.
Because Jeff had been a stay-at-home dad, Heidi, a project manager for Bank of Hawaii, was confronted with additional responsibilities. “Taking over both roles, getting my husband to appointments, and then learning about cancer and the whole medical industry was overwhelming,” she said. To help her cope, Heidi went into “survival mode,” rushing from task to task, a tactic that left her feeling alone. “I felt it was me against him,” she said.
The group’s focus on couples meeting challenges as a partnership helped Heidi. “It wasn’t about how I was going to solve a particular problem,” she said. “It was about how both of us would resolve it, together.”
Identify and communicate needs
The group emphasizes the importance of honest and open communication, which often begins with individuals identifying and communicating their needs.
Heidi explained how one day she felt Jeff hadn’t appreciated a special early trip she made to the hospital. “I could identify my need to feel appreciated and communicate that to him,” said Heidi, “and he could show appreciation and we were done with it, instead of me stewing over it and being upset.”
Plan for different scenarios
Individual partners may deal with their fears differently. “When I first learned I had cancer, I wrapped my head around this thing and decided I would beat it,” said Jeff. “But Heidi is a worst-case scenario person.”
In one exercise, group members were asked to write down a worse-case scenario, a medium-case scenario and a best case scenario. Then they wrote down a plan for each one, if they were to occur. “It eased my mind to know that if the worst -ase scenario happened, we had a plan for it,” said Heidi.
Understand your partner’s stress triggers
In another exercise, the facilitator separated the men and women into groups, then asked them to discuss the stress triggers of their partners, followed by what was helpful for them.
“It was a simple exercise, but very enlightening,” said Heidi. “It taught us to pay attention to simple things that cause stress and how to respond appropriately, as well as things that are helpful.”
Heidi advised couples to share everything they’re feeling, “even if it sounds crazy.” “It’s important to verbalize your fears and your stress levels,” she said.
But sometimes couples run into communication issues when one simply wants to share and the other feels compelled to fix a problem.
“To help their communication, one couple used the word ‘data’ as in “I’m just going to give you data. You don’t have to respond, you don’t’ have to fix anything,’” said Heidi. “And that can be helpful because it takes down barriers.”
Don’t sweat the details – remember what’s important
A cancer diagnosis can bring couples closer by putting life in perspective. “There’s a lot of little day-to-day stuff that you have to do,” said Jeff. “But you shouldn’t get bent out of shape if it doesn’t get done immediately.”
“The most important thing you can do is give each other a hug every day, because your time may be limited,” added Heidi. “Take time to embrace, to be together as a couple and enjoy each other.”
Explore additional tools, tips and resources at our Living with Cancer website.