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The impact of your child's cancer on your couple

July 2012

Cancer has a major effect on marriages and other long-term partnerships. After a cancer diagnosis, both individuals may experience sadness, anxiety, anger, or even hopelessness.

The effects of cancer vary from couple to couple. For some couples, facing the challenges of cancer together strengthens their relationship. For others, the stress of cancer may create new problems and worsen existing problems.

With your partner

Impact on the couple

The demands of your child’s treatment and of running a family home when you are often elsewhere, means that you might see less of each other, at a time when each other’s support is important. As well, both of you may be emotionally stressed. It’s normal to have different ways of coping with stress, but these differences may add to the problems. You might disagree more over important issues or feel more tension in your relationship. This is a common experience for parents of a sick child, but it is painful and can be distressing. It is important that you find time to talk about each other’s thoughts, feelings and experience.

Working to keep relationships strong

Relationships are often strained and under pressure when a child has cancer. It may help to:

  • Keep lines of communication open. Parents often have different coping strategies. Talk about how you each deal best with stress. Make time to connect, even when time is limited.
  • If the tension between you and your partner is a problem, please talk to your child’s doctor, social worker or mental health practitioner.
  • Remember that no two people cope the same way. So, if your spouse or partner does not seem as distraught as you, it does not mean he or she is suffering any less than you are.
  • Make time for loved ones. Even a quick call, text message, or handwritten note can go a long way in making a loved one’s day a good one.
  • If you can, take time to share special moments with one another. Try to gain strength from all you are going through together, and what you have dealt with so far. This may help you move toward the future with a positive outlook and feelings of hope.

"Once we had to make an important decision for our child's treatment. My husband and I had opposite views. Who decides then? We each have one vote, nobody's opinion has more weight… That's when we decided to go and see a couple therapist. It allowed us to create a safe space of discussion". Jessica

With your ex-partner or your child’s other parent

It is important for your child’s other parent to be involved in your child’s care. But this can cause extra stress. You may suddenly have to relate to your child’s other parent, when you no longer have friendly contact with him/her. You may have to face issues or people that you chose not to deal with in the past. Sometimes the feelings you had when your relationship ended may be felt again. If you are not currently in a relationship, it might be hard to see other parents getting support from their partners while you are facing things alone. Interacting with your ex-partner is a difficult task. If you are having difficulty managing the care of your child in co-operation with your ex-partner, please speak to your child’s doctor, social worker or mental health clinician.

Changes that might occur

Roles.

A partner may try to gain some control by becoming an “expert” in some area of the disease. He or she may try to manage your treatment schedule or communication with the health care team. If this is comfortable for both of you, it may help you cope with the illness. But it is important to listen to each other's needs and desires and remain flexible.

Emotional needs.

Each partner may have different emotional needs that change frequently. But both partners may need extra reassurance that they are still loved. Couples need to be sensitive to the changing emotional needs that come with a cancer diagnosis. Spouses or partners may want to consider talking with a professional, such as a therapist or counselor, on their own. Spouses or partners caring for their loved one may find it difficult to express certain feelings for fear of hurting or overwhelming their partner. And it is important that the spouse or partner with cancer is able to express their feelings to someone who can handle the intensity of those feelings without being overwhelmed.

Future plans.

Cancer often changes a couple’s hopes and dreams. Your plans for retirement, traveling, or new parenthood may change, causing feelings of sadness or even anger. It helps to reevaluate priorities and work together to establish new, short-term goals—such as finishing your child's cancer treatment. Things that seemed important before the cancer diagnosis may give way to new priorities, such as enjoying more family time together. But putting some goals on hold, rather than changing them completely, may help your outlook on the future.

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