Marika Humphreys is a life coach who coaches people who have a partner with cancer. She is certified by The Life Coach School. Marika was a caregiver to her late husband for 5 years as he experienced multiple cancers. Coaching has had a profound impact on Marika’s life. Through coaching, she discovered her own strength and resilience, and now she helps her clients do the same. You can find her on Facebook.
A partner's cancer diagnosis can be difficult to cope with. When you take on the role of being their caregiver, you may feel the need to try to protect their emotions. You might think they have so much on their plate already that the last thing they need is to take on any additional fears and worries from you. This is something I experienced personally when I cared for my husband with cancer. And while this thinking is well intended, what can happen as a result is that we as caregivers then put on a brave and positive face for our partner while trying to suppress our own fears and worries. We might avoid crying or sharing our true feelings in front of them for fear that we will bring them down.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect your partner in any way you can. But I have found that often, when we hide our true emotions and feelings behind a positive but false mask, it can end up creating a distance in the relationship and a missed opportunity for a deeper connection with our loved one.
Getting rid of the “cancer filter”
I was recently working with a woman, Nancy, whose husband has advanced cancer. She was struggling with her own fear and anxiety about his situation, but she felt like she couldn’t share any of that with him. In the past, they had a very close relationship, and she turned to him often for support. But now, she felt like he was the one who needed support, and she shouldn’t burden him with her own worries. She said it was like she put on a “cancer filter” around him, and every conversation was now put through the filter in case it might upset him.
The problem with the “cancer filter” Nancy had put in place was that it created distance between her and her husband. At a time when, more than anything, she wanted to connect and feel close to him, and he likely felt the same, she had created a barrier to that connection. She wanted to protect him from any additional pain, but in so doing, she actually created more separation between them. She also unknowingly denied him the opportunity to support her, which is something he used to do in their relationship. Ultimately, because she was not opening up and being truly vulnerable with her husband, it did not create the opportunity for him to do the same.
Nancy and I spoke a lot about connection and what it really meant. I shared with her a great definition from the best-selling author and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, who says connection is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
I’ve found connecting with our partners requires that we are willing to be open and honest with what is truly going on for us. That means sharing our fears and worries sometimes. This is not meant to burden them, but instead to allow them the opportunity to see and hear us and perhaps even give us support in return. I’ve learned that this creates the opportunity for your partner to share, so they can also be seen and heard and receive support from you.
After we talked about it, Nancy decided to be more open with her husband, just like she would have before he had cancer. She found she felt so much closer to him by opening up and that their connection actually deepened.
Remember that connection is a two-way street
Caregiving can sometimes feel like a one-way street. As a caregiver, you might feel the need to provide all the support and encouragement to your partner and to ask for none in return. However, most relationships benefit when the members feel connected. I’ve learned that when you try to protect your partner’s emotions—something you don’t actually have control over—you don’t open up and connect with them. You miss out on an opportunity to be seen and heard and to do the same for them.
Connection is a two-way street. Cancer can create an opportunity for us to connect with those we love at the deepest levels. In my experience caring for my husband, I saw how conversations about love, fear of loss, and our shared uncertain future could truly connect us.
To be clear, dumping your problems onto someone else’s lap does not lead to deeper connections. That pushes people away. Instead, opportunities to connect come when you are willing to put down the mask and share what is really true for you, what is important, and how you are struggling. And, in return, you might find that your partner just may do the same for you.