Practical advice for couples confronting breast cancer

October 3, 2014 | by Nicole White

One person receives the breast cancer diagnosis, but the cancer affects the entire family.

couple therapy The Couples Coping with Cancer Together program focuses on good communication and problem-solving skills for couples confronting breast cancer.

Couples, in particular, can find the diagnosis and treatment challenging, especially if they have traditional male/female communication styles.

“Though every individual is unique, men and women often respond differently during times of stress,"  said Courtney Bitz, L.C.S.W., a social worker in the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at City of Hope. "This is where men and women can learn from and build upon the strengths of their partner and work together as a team. For many couples, the cancer experience can be an opportunity to grow closer to one another."

Bitz offers these specific and practical behavior tips. They've emerged from the wisdom of past patients and partners, from research and from  clinical experience:

Tips for the nonpatient: •    Actively encourage the sharing of emotional concerns and fears. •    Be open to her expression of concerns as often as she needs. •    Listen to her concerns without trying to “fix," minimize or give advice (unless asked). •    Be physically present at all medical appointments, even when not asked. •    Talk with the breast cancer patient about how the illness is impacting you.

Tips for the patient: •    Be honest and direct about how you feel, especially about your fears. •    Avoid testing people – be specific about what you want from others. •    If confused about a behavior, ask your partner what he or she is trying to accomplish with that behavior. •    Stay in the present – no past hurts. •    Respect that you and your partner might cope differently.

Bitz and Matthew Loscalzo, L.C.S.W., the Liliane Elkins Endowed Professor in Supportive Care Programs and executive director of supportive care medicine at City of Hope, lead the Coping with Cancer Together program for women being treated for breast cancer at City of Hope, along with their partners. Bitz says the program helps couples build a framework for good communication and problem-solving early in the treatment process, when it's needed the most.

The  innovative program introduces couples to their social workers, even before the initial medical consultation. This introductory 30-minute session helps the patient and her partner share information that will enable them to support each other, and solve problems with one another, throughout treatment. The Couples Coping with Cancer Together program also offers ongoing counseling and support to couples throughout the continuum of care.

Bitz and Loscalzo are also now offering a unique, two-class course for couples. Titled “Essential Skills for Overcoming the Challenges of Cancer Together,” the course teaches couples specific techniques to enhance communication and practical behaviors to strengthen relationships. They also practice problem-solving skills.

The course is being offered Oct. 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 4 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. For more information or to register, contact Bitz at [email protected] or 626-218-2125.

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Learn more about breast cancer treatment and research at City of Hope.

Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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