The High Toll of Cancer and Care Giving on a Healthy Spouse

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My wife and I had a discussion this week about which one of us would die first. I had the following facts on my side when I informed my wife there was little doubt that I would die first.

My wife and I are two years apart. The fact that I’m older makes it more likely I’d die first. Studies show women live five to ten years longer than men. Both my wife’s parents are alive and in their eighties. My wife is in excellent health.

You can’t imagine my shock and surprised when my wife shared her belief that I’d outlive her. When I asked her how and why she believed that in light of her family history, her age, and her current state of good health she said: “Being your caretaker for so many years took a such a heavy toll on me that I believe I’m going to die first.”

At first I thought my wife was joking. When I realized she was serious, I wanted to prove her wrong. The first article I found on the topic of caregivers health said this: “Research shows that the stress of caregiving can take a serious toll on the emotional and physical health of caregivers.

The next article I read listed thirty activities caregivers perform as they help care for a cancer patient. Some of those activities are: “These include medication acquisition/dispensing; symptom management; meals and nutritional assistance; supervision of treatments; adherence; errands/bill paying; emotional support; coordinating care; monitoring using electronic devices; and communication with providers.”

The third article I read challenged my assumption that the partner treated for cancer was under significantly more stress then their healthy partner. This study contradicted my assumption when they found  “that spouses are as distressed as cancer patients.”

I’m ashamed to admit that  I never realized how many responsibilities, tasks, burdens, and stress, my wife endured before, during, and after my prostate surgery (as well as my other fourteen other surgeries.)

My wife was right and I was wrong. (That occurs way too many times in my marriage.) As healthy caregiver, she’s endured significantly higher levels of stress and distress that was outside of my understanding or awareness. It’s entirely possible the cumulative impact of  the stress of caretaking could impact her health and longevity.

If you are the person diagnosed and treated for prostate or any type of cancer,  your physical symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment may occupy your whole world. You can easily lose sight of what your healthy partner is going through.

A word picture describes how I’ve felt during different phases of coping with cancer. I’m swimming in the ocean when suddenly a painful cramp makes it impossible to swim or get back to shore.

As I’m using every ounce of strength I possess to find my way back to shore, either I fail to see my spouse is next to me with a disabling cramp of her own, or  if I do see her,  I can’t do much of anything to help her because I can barely keep my head above the water. There’s a real danger I’m about to drown, which leaves me without the resources or ability to help my spouse.

I’m not proud to admit there were times I was focused on my difficulties. I did not attend to or support my wife in any way. If I’m going to be painfully honest, there were times  I resented my wife because she was healthy while I had cancer. I was the one who living in diapers and left hating  the quality of my post surgical life.

To the person diagnosed with cancer I want to say this:                                                                                           There may be occasions when the only person you can think about is you. It’s all too easy develop an attitude of entitlement which leads you to believe you’re the only one who is suffering and in need of care. Cancer is a life changing and couple changing disease. For a man dealing with prostate cancer, the idea of seeking help and support can threaten your sense of  independence and manhood.

Think back to my word picture. If you are in the middle of the ocean with a painful cramp that makes it impossible to swim back to shore will you refuse help and drown, or signal to a lifeguard a few hundred feet away to help you get back to shore?

As a man whose lived with and survived cancer my best advice is form a team. Here’s my suggestions for the qualifications for some of your team members:                                                                           •Some folks further along in the journey who can give you perspective, information, and support.                                                                    •Friends who can make you laugh.                                                                    •Someone who know how to listen without judgment or condemnation.                                                •A responsive and competent medical team.               •Professional help if depression or other psychological difficulties emerge.                                   •Spiritual support from a community of faith.             • Someone who can speak truth into your life and challenge you if or when you become too self centered. Ideally this would be your partner.

To the caregiver I want to say this:                                                               You will face some portion of this journey without the emotional support and comfort from your partner. It is extremely important for you to take care of yourself. Coping with a partner with cancer makes it vitally important for you to learn the skills of self care. Your need for sleep, adequate nutrition, exercise, company, down time, prayer time and fun do not go away, nor should those needs be ignored. Here’s an excellent article, a must read for caregivers. The title is How Caregivers Can Take Care of Themselves.  You will need these skills in order to make it back to shore on your own.

Cancer is a relationship changing event. You have the opportunity to use your experiences with cancer to connect deeply with the important people in your life or isolate yourself from everyone. I hope you choose the path that leads to closeness, intimacy, and love.










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Chris Comish serves as the Publisher of the website, and is responsible for directing the editorial focus as well as putting the finishing touches on many featured articles.