When your partner is in denial about cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I recently spoke with a woman who was stressed because her husband has cancer and he seemed to be in denial over the seriousness of his situation.

What was especially upsetting to her was that he didn’t want to address any end of life issues like drafting a will.

I’ve been mulling this over ever since. What happens when a couple faces cancer and they aren’t on the same page?

It’s sometimes a matter of perspective. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? With a particular cancer, the chance of surviving might be 80 percent. On the other hand, the chance of dying is 20 percent. Different people focus on different numbers.

It can also be a function of timing. Absorbing a diagnosis of cancer doesn’t happen overnight and people have to do it at their own pace. Your partner won’t necessarily process the news and their emotions on your timetable.

And realize that a partner’s seeming denial might be a useful coping strategy in the short-term. It’s how they can get through the next few weeks without falling apart.

Here are a few recommendations:

  • It is almost always helpful for a couple to attend medical appointments together so they can hear the same news at the same time. It’s hard to be in synch emotionally if you aren’t working from the same set of facts.
  • Be patient with your partner. Listen without judgment.
  • At the same time, recognize and address your own needs. Joining a support group and/or seeking individual counseling can provide an emotional outlet and reality check.
  • Too much about cancer is uncertain and uncontrollable, so control what you can control. Everyone should have a will and a health care proxy. Take care of them so there are fewer things to worry about. If your spouse balks, say that it’s important for your peace of mind and then take the initiative in making the arrangements.

Sometimes the person in denial is the individual with cancer. Just as often, it’s the partner of the person with cancer who may be in denial. Either way, the principles of being patient and supportive of your partner while addressing your own needs works equally well.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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