When your partner for life has cancer
By Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
When Your Spouse Has Cancer – Here at Cancer Horizons we are intimately acquainted with cancer from many aspects. We are cancer patients, cancer thrivers, cancer survivors, caregivers, spouses, and loved ones. In the past we have discussed survivor’s guilt, but today we want to talk about a very special group of survivors – spouses. Quite frankly, the thought of losing my husband makes my stomach lurch. Every time he goes on a road trip and I can’t reach him – my mind goes to bad places. Despite seeing this very pain in family and loved ones, I still can’t begin to imagine the pain that a spouse feels upon the loss of their life partner to cancer, not to mention the cascading effects on one’s life. Today, let’s take some time to talk about the guilt that surviving spouses may feel, and some ways to alleviate that burden.
As I’ve been thinking about this topic, my mind immediately goes to – what would I do if my husband were diagnosed? I’m very blessed to be able to be a stay-at-home mom to our two children, and my husband is our primary bread winner. Apart from the emotional and physical strains, also comes the practical. Will he still be able to work? Will we be able to keep our insurance? If I’m working, and he is ill – who is going to take care of him? Who is going to take care of the kids? The basis of much of these fears boils down to one point – money. Although it may sound callous to think about that during a life-threatening disease, it is there – and it’s a valid point.
Many cancer patients and their spouses face this dilemma every day – they worry – can we afford this treatment? Honestly, the affordability varies from case to case and situation to situation. But there is one thing that I want to say loudly DON’T SKIP TREATMENTS! Many of you may be thinking – well, that’s easy for you to say – you aren’t dealing with financial hardships. With that very fact in mind – I started making phone calls.
After making phone calls to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Oncology, Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah and the Mayo Clinic (I chose these as fairly representative of cancer care in the US) – I found out that all three of these groups will work with people dealing with money problems. All of these groups did say that it is easier to set up financial assistance if you are already a patient rather than going in – but it is doable – it may just take longer.
The lady that I spoke with at Mayo was amazing – she said, “Here at Mayo – we will never cancel an appointment for cancer patients due to financial issues. If you’re coming in for cosmetic surgery and your account is in arrears, then yeah – that will get cancelled. But if our doctors deem your appointment medically necessary, we will not cancel it, even if your account has been sent to collections.” She went on to explain that their business office (as with M.D. Anderson and Texas Oncology) will work with patients to set up payment plans. Do not hesitate to reach out to the business office for your spouse’s cancer care provider. These amazing professionals are compassionate folks that are in the business of helping you get through the financial aspects of cancer.
Supporting your spouse through cancer
Like I said above, I just can’t even imagine Brian having advanced cancer. Not only is your life partner going through hell, but so are you. While you may feel helpless, there are things that you can do to help. Listening to their concerns from a non-judgmental place is huge. Just as your feelings and fears are valid, so are theirs. If you don’t feel equipped to handle these mental challenges – ask your spouse’s treatment team for recommendations or referrals to mental health professionals in your area. Also – don’t hesitate to speak to a professional as well. You need to be able to get your feelings out. We also have listings for counseling services in our Local Cancer Services section. In this area of our page, you may also find listings for providers such as maid services that can help alleviate a burden from you or your spouses.
Asking for help
For many, asking for help is difficult. In a lot of cases we unfortunately see it as a sign of weakness – when it is anything but that. Don’t hesitate to call your sister-in-law, your husband’s best friend, your kid’s Scout leader. Odds are – they want to help, but don’t know how to offer. Accept the offer of food if they understand possible dietary restrictions, let your husband’s best friend come over and mow the yard, let the Scout leader pick up your kiddo for meetings. Its little things like these that can add up and help you when you need it most.
Financial help is a biggie that many people are afraid to mention. Some of the providers that I spoke with the other day mentioned that they may ask for a down payment prior to starting treatments. If this is the case, we encourage you to look into our Crowdfunding page. Many of these campaigns have been very successful in helping cancer patients leap that wall of down-payment. Also within our Financial Assistance page, you will see links to mortgage and utility assistance, prescription assistance, and programs that are aimed at specific populations such as caregivers and young adults.
Dealing with loss
Sadly, there are many cases where despite the best medical efforts, a spouse will succumb to this beast. If that time comes, first and foremost – our hearts, prayers, and love go out to you during this unimaginable time. It is vital for you to allow yourself to grieve, but it is just as vital that you not second guess yourself. No matter how much we may wish differently, we can’t go back and change the past. It may take years for you to realize this – but you didn’t make your spouse have cancer – this isn’t on you. And very importantly, remember that there is no right way to grieve. Please feel free to read more about that here.
While reading through numerous message boards on this subject, I’ve seen a common thread – we all grieve differently, and we all live differently. No two cancer journeys are the same, and as such, your grief is unique. As time passes, you may hear platitudes from well meaning friends that make smoke bellow from your ears, such as – “Its time to move on, you know s/he wouldn’t want you to feel like this.” If you hear these types of comments, do your best to understand that these folks mean well, they just don’t get it. And as their friends and loved ones – we pray that they never join this group that has experienced such tremendous loss.
One person recommended keeping a journal, and rather writing to “Dear Diary” – write to your spouse. Put a favorite picture of the two of you on the cover, or on the first page. Write to them at the end of the day – tell him/her about your day, just as you would have over dinner or while laying in bed. I personally used this method when my aunt passed – and it really did help.
Finally, reach out to support groups in your area or online. There you will find people that, although each journey is different, have traveled similar roads.
With that, we send our love and support to every cancer patient, cancer spouse, caregiver, and loved one. We pray that you know that you aren’t alone, and will reach out for help if you need it.