“I think that when people are diagnosed with cancer, cancer really becomes their life,” Alessandra Tantawi said in a recent interview with CURE®. “And it's so hard to just have a ‘normal day’ where you can focus on anything besides cancer. And I think what's important is to spend time that is outside of the cancer treatment.”
A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment regimen can overtake a patient’s life and infiltrate their daily routine so much so that the patient ignores other aspects of their life.
“I think that when people are diagnosed with cancer, cancer really becomes their life,” Alessandra Tantawi, a psychotherapist at Resilience Lab in New York, said in a recent interview with CURE®. “And it's so hard to just have a ‘normal day’ where you can focus on anything besides cancer. And I think what's important is to spend time that is outside of the cancer treatment.”
Tantawi, who recently led a discussion during Susan G. Komen Greater New York City’s Sex and Breast Cancer Conference, went on to discuss the roles that love, kindness and communication play in a patient’s relationship during and after treatment. Additionally, Tantawi offered advice as to how patients with cancer can improve those pillars in their relationships, as well as improve self-love.
CURE: How do love, kindness and communication influence the health of a couple and what role do they play in their relationships?
Alessandra Tantawi: In an any couple, it's really important to think about the dynamic that is true to the two people that are involved. And whether that's a heterosexual, queer, non-gender conforming, dynamic couple or a coupleship, it's very important that there's a level of trust that is established. And with that comes the love, kindness and communication. It's so important that these are the baselines for a blossoming relationship. But in addition, it really is the foundation of a relationship to have difficult conversations. And the reason I had the topic of love, kindness and communication matters, was because we were at a sex conference talking about difficult conversations around breast cancer and sex after breast cancer. And in order to have difficult conversations around sex and dynamics around intimacy, a loving foundation of kindness and clear communication is very important.
How does the topic of love, kindness and communication differ in patients with cancer compared to those who do not have cancer?
I think that it's even more important for folks who are experiencing treatment and the experience of having your body go through cancer because your body in a way feels like it's being taken from you. So, how do you rebuild those levels of trust and intimacy in your relationship? I think it's even more important to have these established senses of trust, love and kindness with your partner to have these difficult conversations around intimacy and sex.
Why is it important for patients with cancer to be aware of things such as love, kindness and communication?
Genetically and biologically it is not good to emotionally keep things inside of yourself. The buildup of stress in your body and the buildup of cortisol in your body can impair your immune system and make it difficult for you to fight off whatever illnesses you may have. So, if you are carrying the burden of not having these conversations and keeping in these difficult feelings that you're having around whatever topic it may be, you are enhancing the levels of stress in your body building up that cortisol and decreasing your ability to naturally fight off whatever disease, and or cancer, that may be penetrating the body. That's number one.
But also, it's just imperative to have these conversations to build a stronger foundation in your relationship, regardless of if you're in treatment or not in treatment. And if you go into treatment, your body is experiencing a traumatic experience. And you want to be able to share that with your partner to have that support.
What are some ways that patients with cancer can improve communication and intimacy with their partners?
I think that when people are diagnosed with cancer, cancer really becomes their life. And it's so hard to just have a "normal day" where you can focus on anything besides cancer. And I think what's important is to spend time that is outside of the cancer treatment, and I think it's important to schedule those times. Scheduling time that is just around spending time together, whether that's watching television together, going for a walk together, cooking a meal together, talking about dreams, regrets, hopes, whatever it may be.
Scheduling sex is another important thing that people don't really talk about, but it's important. Scheduling is a kind of nerdy way to get closer in a relationship, but it's still important. I would also say that writing letters to one another can be a powerful way to increase intimacy. It doesn't have to be every day, but maybe once every other month on a special day. Maybe it's the number of your anniversary day that you write a letter to one another.
Maybe once a week schedule a date night and you have that special time where you put the phone away and you're not talking about cancer, you're not talking about anything, you're just spending time with your partner. Maybe learn something new together to spend time together and increase intimacy. These are all things that maybe sound like, “how can I do this when I'm going through cancer, it's all I think about and it's all I care about”, right? But this is a priority, your wellbeing and your relationship should be a priority, because it's one of the central points of who you are.
For patients who may feel like they’re dealing with these issues on their own, why is it important for them to seek professional advice?
Everyone has the potential in themselves to accomplish all that they can on their own, but everyone can use some help. When a patient and therapist spend time together, the patient is speaking, and they’re sharing their thoughts, dreams and fears. A therapist then reflects that back to the patient. And they’re hearing it in a way that helps them reflect on their thoughts in a way that they didn't maybe hear before, because they’re just in their own head.
When they have the ability to say it out loud, they're able to hear it in a different way that gives them a different perspective. And that's a powerful experience, to be able to engage in a relationship that is so personal, but with someone who's dedicated to their wellbeing. A simple tool that I often give clients is a process of noting. For instance, they’re having a thought or a feeling, and what noting does is it rewires the brain to think that they solved whatever overwhelming sensation is happening in their brain. It's very simple, but it has tremendous results. Something simple like that a patient really can only learn if they were seeing a therapist or spent some time on Google.
For patients with cancer who are not currently in a relationship, what are some ways they can go about improving self-love?
I would even say that before people in relationships can give themselves to anyone, they have to truly love themselves and work on themselves. And this really begins by looking at oneself and identifying the reasons and ways that you love yourself. This is an opportunity to really fall in love with yourself and practice ways of self-care, that are simple.
Sometimes, especially during these times of social distancing and quarantine, it feels really overwhelming. We're in a time where we're almost feeling pressured to self-care. And I think that self-care can be something as simple as taking a nice bath, putting moisturizer on your skin, taking a nice long walk, doing things that are really simply just for you that no one sees, and they're simply to benefit yourself. Something as simple as waking up every morning and taking seven to 10 deep breaths to regulate your nervous system, painting your nails or reading a book.
Sometimes people will feel like you have to learn a new language and crochet and then do all these really eccentric things that are expensive. We have to really pull back and understand that falling in love with yourself begins in really simple steps by taking a look at yourself, appreciating all that you can do, and all that you feel that you hope to do, and taking small steps to accomplish them and setting really small goals for yourself and accomplishing them.
For instance, every day for the next five days, wake up at a certain time and follow a routine. Take a shower, meditate, make yourself breakfast for five days straight. Do that for five days, accomplish it and you genuinely just feel good. Find those little ways to just fall in love with yourself and feel good about yourself without any sort of affirmation from anyone else. Those are the ways that we can feel good and feel true to ourselves.