When Dealing With Cancer, Don’t Treat Your Spouse Like a Therapist

Published on: 
CURE, CURE Fall 2022, Volume 21, Issue 03

While my wife has been an amazing caregiver throughout my cancer experience, I realized that it was not fair for her to continually be on the receiving end of all my negative emotions.

I’m convinced that I have the best caregiver the world. Since my prostate cancer diagnosis in 2014, my wife has been patient, loving and supremely understanding, without fail, 24/7.

I have tried to repay her kindnesses and soothing, supportive words with flowers, greeting cards and notes of thanks, taking her to dinner and even putting small snacks in her lunch bag overnight. She has been on the receiving end of hours, days and weeks of my angst, depression and frequent mood swings.

So, I thought my outpouring of gratitude might balance the scales in our relationship.

I was wrong.

Information Overload

My mistake was in thinking that she needed to be the one to bear the brunt of my rantings and offer solutions to my nagging concerns. Frankly, I had turned my wife into a mental health therapist, a role she was neither prepared nor trained for.

I knew that I needed to stop piling up on my wife. I knew that the therapist’s office, not my home, should be the venue for airing some of my most deep-seated fears and overwhelming challenges that cancer brings to the table.

A counselor would need to become my safe haven, my listening post, my refuge.

With a therapist, I could safely speak about things too difficult to broach with my spouse. Things like the fear that my cancer might morph into stage 4, requiring the dreaded chemotherapy treatment. Or that I would become a burden to my wife, an invalid needing round-the-clock care. Or that I might be hospitalized for weeks on end and emerge a shadow of my former self.

Or that cancer might kill me.

How does a cancer patient talk to a spouse or significant other about such matters? These things might best be directed toward a professionally trained therapist, better yet one familiar with the issues facing a patient with a life-threatening disease.

So, one day, I took the plunge into therapy-land.

Counselors Helped Me Immensely

One of my counselors was housed at a cancer institute, where she specialized in advising patients in active treatment. She helped me immeasurably, bringing to bear on my issues, the well-earned experience she had with this patient population.

Another counselor that I saw for a couple of years was in private practice. She was of immense help to gauge my emotions and offered practical advice on how to convert chaos into calm. An important part of my therapy was reading aloud some of my writings about cancer. That brought me validation, connection and perspective.

When I returned from my therapy sessions, I did not want to recount chapter and verse what had been discussed. I did not want to return to my ranting ways. Most of all, I did not want to put an albatross around my wife’s neck, constantly weighing her down with my emotional baggage.

So, instead, I doled out a few pertinent details and summarized the visit in five or 10 minutes, sparing her a blow-by-blow account. I could see in my wife’s eyes relief that she would be spared the constant harpings of the past. She appeared, at long last, more accepting of the emotional rollercoaster that is cancer.

Setting Boundaries

My wife will always be my confidant during my cancer journey. She will always be the devoted, loving partner whom I have come to cherish so deeply. But I know, too, that we need to set boundaries on how much information I should share and how much she can absorb.

The scales of our relationship have been recalibrated. Cancer still hangs over us at times like a dark shadow, but we are learning to walk out into the light. We are moving forward, hand in hand, to face the future, with our marriage stronger than ever before.

And my therapist is just one step behind!

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