Cancer Center News

Elizabeth Davis, MD, is a psychiatric oncologist in the Cancer Center’s Survivorship Program. She helps patients cope with both the emotional and physical side effects of cancer. Here, Dr. Davis shares tips for couples facing cancer together.

Conversations from the Heart

01/Feb/2011

Survivorship Program at Mass General Cancer Center

The Cancer Center Survivorship Program

The Survivorship Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center provides treatment, counseling and support for patients and their loved ones facing the challenges of living with and beyond cancer. Learn more.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, it’s hard to escape the ads for perfume, candy and lingerie. If you have cancer, the smell of perfume or the thought of candy might make you nauseous, not to mention the lingerie.

It’s okay that romance might not be your top priority now. However, during treatment, relationships play a critical role in coping. This is a time when priorities often become clearer, and a sharpened focus on the important things in life can make couples stronger. It’s essential to honestly acknowledge the physical and emotional challenges of cancer and deal with them together. Some of these can include:

  • Hormonal changes brought on by treatment can cause shifts in mood and personality which can be difficult for both the patient and their partner.
  • Anxiety and depression can occur during treatment and beyond in both partners.
  • Physical changes – whether permanent or temporary – can dramatically alter a couple’s lifestyle. Shared enjoyed activities might not be possible, and new bonding activities should be found.
  • Body image issues are common among patients with cancer, which can impact self-esteem and make intimacy more difficult.
  • Role changes – when one partner suddenly becomes the “caretaker” and the other the “patient” – can cause strain for both.
  • Feelings of helplessness, guilt or loss of control can affect both the partner in treatment and the caregiver since neither can change the situation.
  • Caregiver burnout is common, leaving the “healthy” partner physically and emotionally drained.

A word about intimacySexual dysfunction is a major concern patients raise in our discussions. It’s not often talked about openly – so patients and their partners might feel isolated in their experience – but changes in body image, mood, hormone levels and other cancer and treatment-related effects can cause drastic changes in a couple’s intimate relationship. The key is to talk about these issues with your partner and to seek help from your medical team. Don’t let embarrassment keep you from improving your quality of life.

Coping together

At times during treatment it can feel like neither partner’s needs are being met. Every couple is different, but here are some steps that can help you and your partner cope during this difficult time:

  • Acknowledge the issues and discuss them together, bringing in help from your care team as needed. Oncologists, oncology psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains are all experienced in helping patients cope with various aspects of treatment.
  • Try to be flexible. The cancer experience is different for everyone, and the only certainty is that there will be good days and bad days. If you can weather these together, and adapt to what comes, you can be each other’s strongest support.
  • Share the burden with your support system. Family, friends and other social networks can help you both cope by providing emotional support and even shouldering some logistical responsibilities, like providing rides or meals. Don’t be afraid to let people know the best way to help out.
  • Maintaining a sense of humor might sound like a cliché, but couples who can laugh together often have an easier time coping with difficult situations.
  • Seek perspective from those who have been in your shoes. Reach out to couples in support groups, or connect with similarly-diagnosed patients through the Cancer Center’s Network for Patients and Families. It’s important to realize you’re not alone and your challenges are not uncommon.

Don’t be afraid to discuss any physical or emotional issues impacting your relationship with your care team, or contact the Mass General Cancer Center Survivorship Program for help.

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