Communicating With a Partner About
Her Cancerby Karen Kayser, Ph.D.
When dealing with a diagnosis like breast cancer, it is important
to have someone with whom you can confide your innermost thoughts
and feelings. However, husbands/partners often ask how much should
they question their wives/partners about difficult topics such as
fears of recurrence or effects of the illness on family members.
They sometimes feel that they are doing their partners a favor by
not bringing up certain topics, in an effort to protect them from
undue anxiety or worry. In reality, however, cancer patients are
more likely to suffer emotionally when they don’t disclose
their feelings about the issues surrounding cancer. (See Research).
Of course, if the patient receives an unsupportive response after
sharing her feelings, there may not be the same positive benefits
of disclosure. Perhaps this is the main fear that partners or spouses
have—that one may not have the “right” response,
to be helpful. Eric Kingson, who supported his wife during her long
struggle with colon cancer, says that “communication can deepen
the relationship. But you need to have a strong relationship to
begin with. (For more about Eric and his recent book, Lessons from
Joan, see Books in Review).
If talking to your partner about certain topics is difficult for
you, a trusted friend or professional may help to facilitate a discussion.
Or you could try the following exercise that was developed by psychologists
Nancy Pistrang and Chris Barker to help partners identify helpful
and supportive communications. It requires a tape recorder and about
one hour to complete.
- Start with one partner agreeing to be the “Discloser”
and the other partner being the “Helper.”
- Take a few minutes to think of the topic you would like to discus
as Discloser. It may be helpful to write down your idea. Don’t
select a topic that is a “hot” issue but is something
that is related to the cancer and that you have some feelings
- Set a timer to 10 minutes and turn on the tape recorder.
- Start the conversation with the Discloser telling the Helper
what her/his chosen topic is. Then proceed with the conversation
in as natural a way as you can.
- Talk for 10 minutes until the timer sounds.
- After 10 minutes, play back the tape and focus on the helper’s
responses. The Discloser stops the tape periodically to give the
Helper feedback on the helpfulness of his/her responses. The Discloser
may want to rate the level of helpfulness of each response on
a scale from 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful). Empathy can
also be rated on a 5-point scale with 5 points indicating that
the helper accurately identified the other person’s feelings.
Finally, the Discloser may communicate in general what was helpful
or unhelpful about the conversation.
There are no objectively right or wrong responses. The aim is
simply to help the partners discover what is helpful or not helpful
in their communication.
After reviewing the taped conversation the partners can reverse
their roles as Discloser and Helper and record another conversation
with the feedback session.