Couples and cancer: Tips for communicating

Couples Coping with Cancer Together Program

A cancer diagnosis not only affects the individual diagnosed, it impacts that person’s partner and family, as well. Even the most loving and secure relationships can struggle with emotional support, communication and problem-solving during a serious illness.
In order to better support couples throughout the process of diagnosis, treatment and survivorship, the Department of Supportive Care Medicine has created the innovative Couples Coping With Cancer Together program. The couples program is one of the only programs of its kind, and is offered as part of the normal continuum of care provided to patients and families at City of Hope. It is tailored to the unique needs of English- and Spanish-speaking couples facing a cancer diagnosis together, regardless of sexual orientation or relationship status.
Cancer can wreak havoc on your life and relationship, but it also creates an opportunity to live a fuller and more meaningful life.” Courtney Bitz, LCSW, ACHP-SW, OSW-C

What to Expect as a Patient or Partner

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, his or her partner matters! A partner is an important component of the patient’s support system during a cancer diagnosis and throughout treatment. At the same time, partners often experience as much distress as the patient  if not more  while trying to juggle the demands of daily life in the midst of supporting their loved one.
A couples program clinician sees patients and their partners for a joint session before their first visit with the physician. During this session, the clinician shares wisdom from past patients, partners, research and clinical experience, as well as practical behaviors that will help them best support one another and problem-solve together. 
The session focuses on the following to help couples strengthen their relationship during times of high stress.
  • Increase knowledge about specific techniques to enhance open and honest communication.
  • Practice effective problem-solving skills.
  • Focus on the unique strengths that each individual brings to the relationship, and how they can use these strengths to better cope as a team.
  • Prioritize opportunities for couples to live the relationship they have always wanted.
It’s so good to connect with other couples, and be where cancer subjects are not taboo.”
For many couples, one session is sufficient in providing the education and support needed. However, some couples benefit from additional support. When this is the case, couples are offered the opportunity to:
  • Attend the Couples Coping With Cancer Together support group. This group is open to all City of Hope patients, partners and community members.
  • Meet for follow-up couples counseling sessions with a member of the couples program team.
  • Learn about other educational and problem-solving resources available through members of the supportive care team.

About the Couples Program 

The Couples Coping With Cancer Together program has been assisting couples since its inception in 2013, and satisfaction survey data has shown that 98% of patients and partners would highly recommend this program to other couples. Physicians also note that couples who participate in the program seem calmer and better able to focus on medical information during their subsequent medical appointments.
The couples program has published in Oxford University Press, Psycho-Oncology and Journal of Supportive Care in Cancer. This innovative model has been presented at international and national professional conferences, including the 19th World Congress of Psycho-Oncology, the American Psychosocial Oncology Society and the Association of Oncology Social Workers.
Thank you for helping us start these conversations ... we’ve been avoiding this since the diagnosis.”

Philanthropic Support

We would like to extend our profound gratitude to the donors and foundations whose support has played a critical role in the growth and success of the Couples Coping With Cancer Together program. Their generous contributions enable us to enhance our program and services so we can reach more patients, partners and families in need.

Contact Information

If you are a patient or partner and would like more information or feel you would benefit from the support of one of our clinicians, please contact program leader Kimberly Romig, LCSW, ACHP-SW, below. 
Medical and mental health professionals are also encouraged to contact our team for more information about implementing couples-based interventions in their own oncology settings. Professional resources will be made available.
Couples Coping With Cancer Together
Kimberly Romig, LCSW, ACHP-SW
[email protected]


Kim Romig, LCSW, ACHP- SW
Claudia Cuevas, M.S.W.
Lynne Thomas, M.S.W.

Helpful Resources

Join in as City of Hope’s Ellen Polamero speaks to the Bloodline with LLS Podcast at the 2019 CancerCon. Polamero is a clinical social worker at City of Hope in Duarte, California. She works with couples going through cancer together.
In this episode, she speaks about the impact of cancer, not only on the specific person that is diagnosed, but on the family unit as a whole and on intimate partners specifically. She describes the challenges a couple may experience, expectations that couples may place on themselves, the importance of communication and various resources available to couples. Polamero shares key takeaways to help couples navigate their cancer journey.