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March 2006
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Communicating With a Partner About Her Cancer
by 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.

  1. Start with one partner agreeing to be the “Discloser” and the other partner being the “Helper.”
  2. 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 about.
  3. Set a timer to 10 minutes and turn on the tape recorder.
  4. 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.
  5. Talk for 10 minutes until the timer sounds.
  6. 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.

contact Karen.kayser@bc.edu.

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