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Cancer as a Couple Part 1: Communication and How to Keep Your Relationship Healthy While Dealing with Serious Illness

In cancer treatment, as with any long-term health issue, stress, finances, and even medical side effects can upend usual routines and priorities and can wreak havoc on even very solid partnerships. This is one of the key themes within my book, We Were Better Together: Navigating Cancer as a Couple so for today’s blog post, I thought I’d share a short excerpt from my conversation with Dr. Alise Bartley, a dear friend who also happens to be a psychologist and a leader in her field of relationship and family counseling.

This is just a part of one of the wide-ranging discussions we had about how, contrary to what you might think, going through cancer together as loving partners can actually strengthen and deepen your bond. Read on for how to engage lovingly and effectively, and how to talk cancer to your partner, whether you are the cancer patient, or the caregiver in the relationship.

Robert J. Shearer: Melissa and I approached our communication about her cancer in the same way as we looked at our business. We specifically chose not to talk about it all the time, because we didn’t want it to take over our life completely. When couples are talking with each other in the early days after a cancer diagnosis, how can they establish trust, define roles and soothe each other’s fears and worries without letting it upend daily life?

Alise Bartley: Cancer—or any long-term health crisis—steals our power. When you receive a diagnosis, your sense of your own power shifts. You’ve lost control. When there is no imminent crisis and we are moving forward in life, we rarely think about how vulnerable we’d become if we were faced with a challenging illness. But if or when it happens, as the patient, you have to ask yourself what you can do to regain some of that power and agency. It can be really difficult, especially in the beginning, when you may not even know what you need.

As a caregiver to a partner, there can be awkward silences at the beginning of this process since we are still in disbelief—and we need to be! But the most important question you can ask your loved one is very simple: “What do you need?” And to be clear, it’s not, “What can I do for you?” Because that’s more about you. Asking what they need allows the space for them to share more freely, even if what they need goes beyond what you might be able to provide personally. The greatest gift you can give to your partner may just be to truly listen.

In general, couples should think about defining some parameters—I don’t really like the word “boundaries” because it’s so overused—for how and when they’ll talk about and deal with their illness. There’s no denying it will take an important place in their life together, but they don’t want to build the next phase of their relationship on top of the crisis. Instead, the goal should be to lean on the strength of the partnership to support them both through it…

RJS: What about the differences between women and men? Is there anything to consider? During Melissa’s medical crisis, I had to do a lot of things I never expected, and if I were to credit one person with helping me do that, it would be my mother. She had an incredible inner strength that made her able to meet any challenge or problem.

AB: In our society, women are socialized as caregivers. I once had a patient who’d had a heart attack. She had been hosting a Fourth of July party and ignored serious symptoms because she didn’t want to inconvenience her guests. If you are a woman stepping into the patient role, you may feel guilty or that you’re losing your purpose. Instead, think of it as gently setting down that role just for now. For the time being, you need to break away from being the constant caregiver and give yourself the attention and space to heal.

The same can be said for men who are suddenly thrust into the role of patient or caregiver. Changing roles create uncertainty and can bring anxiety, unease or feelings of being overwhelmed. Again, creating structure and being gentle with yourself during these transitions is key. Therapy can offer a lot of relief as well as proactive solutions for managing this new chapter and continuing to thrive as a couple.

From my personal experience, here are 3 really important things to keep in mind:

  1. Tell your partner you love them. Every single day.
  2. Cancer treatment can be a real grind. Make an effort to stoke the joy in your relationship, even in small ways, whether that’s listening to music or watching movies together, holding hands, or just talking about something that is not the illness.
  3. Prioritize sweet gestures and small intimacies. Learn your partner’s “love language” and communicate in ways they most appreciate.

Above all, know that you can get through this together, and that you are not alone.


Wishing you and yours smooth communication and true healing as you travel this path together.

Bob Shearer

Bob Shearer (5)

Robert J. Shearer is the co-founder, former CEO and chairman of Shearer Foods. During his 40-year tenure, he scaled the company to a multi-million-dollar enterprise, receiving accolades from numerous trade and business organizations. For his entrepreneurial achievements, Shearer has been recognized by Ernst & Young, Crain’s Cleveland Business and the Northeast Ohio Business Hall of Fame. A former chairman of SNAC International, Shearer also served on numerous boards and is a frequent keynote speaker on entrepreneurship. He divides his time between Florida, Arizona and Ohio.

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