Talking With Your Spouse or Partner About Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

Talking about cancer can be hard because it involves intense emotions. Even couples who usually communicate well may have trouble talking about cancer. Discussing a cancer diagnosis may involve topics that you do not want to talk about with your partner. This could include sexual problems, fertility concerns, physical limitations, financial worries, and even death.

This article will offer practical advice for how to talk to your partner about cancer.

How to talk to your spouse or partner about cancer

Cancer changes the lives of both people in a relationship, and both require support. Here are some tips for talking with your spouse or partner about cancer, how it makes you feel, and how it affects you and your relationship.

  • Work together to explore treatment options. While the person with cancer will make the final choice about treatment, it helps if their partner can help them consider treatment options. If your partner has cancer, ask them how you can support them when it comes to making treatment options. If you have cancer, think about how your partner can help. For example, maybe they can help you do online research or plan what questions to ask the oncologist. When possible, attend doctor appointments together and the partner can take notes so you have shared information to go over during these conversations. Learn more about shared decision-making.

  • Find time to talk. Choose times to talk when you are both free from distractions. Try to find times when you both aren't rushed. Some couples find that scheduling a set daily or weekly time to talk works well.

  • Practice or write down what you want to say. Sometimes, you may find it difficult to say what you need to. You may even leave conversations feeling like you did not share what you meant to. To avoid this, it can help to practice what you are going to say ahead of time or write notes so you do not forget. It can help you prioritize your values and identify your biggest worries.

  • Share how your partner can support you. You should both share the ways you each cope with stress and then think through whether you have differing needs in that conversation. For example, one partner may view cancer as a problem to be solved, while the other needs emotional support and validation.

  • Talk honestly about your feelings, both positive and negative. Emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, and resentment are normal reactions to cancer. Couples often do not discuss these emotions because they are afraid of upsetting each other. Each person may feel guilty for having negative thoughts. But hiding feelings creates distance between partners and prevents them from supporting and comforting each other. It may be difficult to hear that your partner feels guilt or sadness, but talking openly about your emotions will help both of you.

  • Respect your partner's feelings. You may feel different things at different times. It is important to respect how your partner is feeling without judgment. For example, one of you may feel afraid while the other feels hopeful.

  • Talk about topics other than cancer. You do not always have to talk about cancer. Be sure to set aside time regularly to connect in the way you used to before the cancer diagnosis.

  • Do not be afraid to use humor to cope. Laughter and jokes help many people cope with cancer. Laughing together can be important for connection and stress relief.

If you are the partner with cancer, it is important to ask for what you need. That way, your partner can provide the support you need in the moment. For example:

  • Tell your partner how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Sharing helps your partner understand your challenges and provides an opportunity for them to support you.

  • Tell your partner specific ways they can support and encourage you. One day you may need encouragement to get out of the house. On another day, you may need some quiet time alone. By telling your loved one the best way to support you, you will get what you need and your partner does not have to guess.

General communication tips for people with cancer and their partners

Good communication with your spouse or partner involves talking openly and honestly about your thoughts and feelings. It includes sharing your experience, listening to your partner, and accepting your partner's thoughts and feelings without criticism or blame. Good communication is not simple for anyone, and it does not always come naturally. It requires practice and effort.

Here are some tips for good communication:

  • Practice active listening. Active listening means you concentrate on understanding what your partner is saying, rather than thinking ahead about what you are going to say next. For example, restate what your partner said in your own words. Then, ask for feedback to make sure you understand your partner's point of view.

  • Do not assume. Never assume you know what your partner is thinking, feeling, or what they will say next. Ask questions if something is unclear.

  • Use "I" statements. Use "I" statements to describe your feelings rather than blaming your partner. For example, you may say, "I felt sad when you did not go to the doctor's appointment with me." This statement is less likely to put the other person on the defensive and start an argument.

  • Be specific and clear. For example, "hurt" could mean either sad or disappointed. It is more effective to make a request than to blame or shame your partner. For example, say "Please pick up your socks," instead of "You're so messy."

  • Avoid hurtful language. Try to avoid criticism, sarcasm, name calling, and insults during your conversations.

  • Remain calm. If you become angry or upset, using a calming routine, such as taking a deep breath or leaving the room for a break, can be more helpful than forcing yourself to continue.

  • Do not rush the conversation. Take time to decide what you want to say. Give your partner time as well.

  • Take turns talking. Do not interrupt your partner when they are talking. Make sure you both feel you have had enough time to express your feelings before finishing a conversation.

  • Focus on one topic at a time. Avoid bringing up other topics or old arguments.

  • Do not expect to resolve difficult topics in a single conversation. Agree to continue talking about a sensitive subject at another time.

  • Talk with a neutral person. It can be helpful for both of you to talk with another neutral person, such as a trained counselor. This person can help you work through different points of view.

Counseling for people with cancer and their partners

If talking with your spouse or partner is difficult, you may consider meeting with a counselor. This can include a mental health professionals, oncology social worker, clergy, or other trained professionals. You may choose to see counselors individually or as a couple. Counseling can help you address communication problems and guide you through difficult conversations.

Support groups can also be helpful. There are support groups for people diagnosed with cancer as well as for spouses and partners. Support groups provide a setting to learn about other people's experiences communicating about cancer within intimate relationships.

Questions to ask the health care team

You may want to ask your cancer care team the following questions.

  • Who can I talk with if I'm feeling sad, anxious, or distress?

  • Are there resources to support and help family caregivers?

  • Are there counseling services at this medical center for patients and their families?

  • Who can I talk with if I need free or lower-cost counseling services?

Related Resources

Family Life

Spotlight On: Marriage and Family Therapists in Cancer Care

How to Support a Spouse or Partner During Cancer Treatment by "Holding Space"

Working Together to Choose A Cancer Treatment Plan

How to Stay Connected When Your Partner Has Cancer

Caring for a Loved One with Cancer