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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFTSally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
A blog about mental and emotional health

8 Strategies for Maintaining Resilience in Your Couple Relationship When Cancer Joins The Family

Sally Connolly Updated: Nov 3rd 2010

Receiving and living with a cancer diagnosis is one of the most stressful things that someone can experience, especially the patient; however, it also affects the whole family.

water ripplesThe impact of cancer is like dropping a stone into a pool of water. The effects of the diagnosis ripple through the family and result in many changes to the lives, routines and identity of each person in the family.

For a spouse, it is hard to live with fear of the loved ones’ death, uncertainty about the future, and finding ways to meet the emotional needs of the patient. Studies have shown that spouses can become as distressed as the cancer patient and that each one’s reaction to the stress affects the other.

My husband and colleague, John Turner, and I were recently invited to meet with a group of couples living with cancer at our local Gilda’s Club. Gilda’s Club, named after comedian Gilda Radner, provides support and resources for people living with cancer and for their families.

We were asked to talk to couples who are living with cancer in either one of the spouses or with a child. The focus was on building and enhancing their resilience. Our goal was to remind them how to keep connected to the good and positives in their relationship while dealing with a high level of change, fear and stress.

We want to share with you what we shared with that group, our Eight Strategies for Maintaining Resilience When Living with Cancer.

1. Appreciate all of the good in your life and in your couple relationship right now and continue that focus on your journey.

Keep reminders, photos, souvenirs and mementos and talk about happy times. You and your relationship are much more than the cancer. While there are certainly times to think, talk and feel about the cancer, it is only one part of your life. Enjoy and celebrate all of the other goodness that is there, the parts that make the “whole” of you.

2. Maintain some sense of normalcy. Keep to rituals and routines as much as possible. The person living with the cancer diagnosis, as well as all of the family members, need to find ways to think and act as normally as is possible.

Retaining some of the rituals and routines such as meals together, family gatherings and special rituals for weekends, helps couples recover from the stress that the barrage of changes from cancer and cancer treatment bring.

3. Allow acceptance and embrace scary and negative feelings and then, together, find a way to move on. Denial may feel right at first; however, in the long run, it is not helpful for anyone. Give yourselves the opportunity to think and talk about your fears, worries and anger.

Make sure not to “camp out” there, however. Find ways to put those feelings aside and focus on a move back into the present and to the good about your life and your family.

4. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is a long and scary road to walk. Recognize that you both have the same goals and desires in mind, you just may have different ways to go about them and periods when you have more energy, the ability to be positive, strong and hopeful.

Recognize that, sometimes when your spouse is grumpy, angry or depressed, that it may have a lot to do what is happening in your lives right now. Give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

5. Don’t be lonely heroes. Ask for and receive help.

6. Keep humor alive. Gilda’s Club is devoted to helping cancer patients and their families find ways to laugh. A lot of research found that laughter can stimulate organs and release those natural uppers called endorphins as well as produce the body’s own natural painkillers that help to fight stress.

Watch funny movies, read humorous books, spend time with people that make you laugh.

7. Find your joy. Remain hopeful. Miracles do happen. Patients do recover. Research brings amazing results and new medications and treatments are discovered all of the time.

Remain hopeful and find the joy that is happening in your life right now

8. Keep meaning and a sense of purpose in your life. What has always given your life purpose and meaning? What gave you a reason to get up and get going in the morning? Has it been being a parent, helping others, caring for an elderly relative, contributing in a book group or civic organization, being a master gardener?

Remember what brought meaning and purpose to your life in the past and find some way to remain connected. Also think about this new journey. Does it provide other opportunities for providing meaning in your life, with your family and with others living with cancer.

Learn to live for and appreciate each day that you have with your spouse and with your family. Live in the “now” and in the present.


Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients both present in the room as well as online through email, phone and chat therapy. She has written numerous articles about solving couple and relationship dilemmas. Many of them can be found on her website, Counseling Relationships Online, or her blog, Relationship Dilemmas.

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