How to Support a Spouse or Partner Who Has Breast Cancer

Tips on How Partners Can Help Loved Ones With Breast Cancer

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be overwhelming to relationships. Partners play an important role in supporting patients with breast cancer. In fact, studies have shown that survival may be better for those with good social support.

Breast cancer, whether in a man or woman, affects people in a number of ways. Treatment can cause body image changes, hormonal therapies can cause mood changes, and chemotherapy and radiation therapy bring a number of side effects.

Treatment for breast cancer leaves most patients feeling tired and more in need of support than ever. If you take a moment to think about how you feel when you are exhausted, then add these treatments to the mix, that's a bit of what your spouse is feeling. Before we even go into ways of supporting your spouse, it's important to mention patience. Because they will need your patience.

At the same time as your spouse is going through all of these changes, you are likely feeling what so many partners feel: helpless. If you're someone who is accustomed to being a "do-er" you might not know where to begin. Let's take a look at some ways that you can best support your partner as they navigate their breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Emotional Support

couple supporting each other

Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United

A cancer diagnosis can be emotionally exhausting. As your partner moves through the stages of dealing with cancer, they may feel shock, disbelief, fear, sadness, anxiety, and more. There are ways that you can provide emotional support as you both navigate these complex emotions. 

  • Let the feelings happen. The first step in managing emotion is acknowledgement. Once your partner understands what they are feeling, you can work together to cope. Encourage your partner to share both positive emotions (like hope and gratitude) and negative ones (like loss of control, anger or sadness) with you so that you can help process them.
  • More positive, less negative: It is natural to have both positive and negative emotions. While it is important to stay positive and upbeat when possible, it is equally important not to keep negative emotions bottled up. Leaning into positive emotions can be helpful.
  • Manage emotions with a plan. As you talk through emotions (both negative and positive), help your partner move forward. For instance, if your partner feels as though their life is out of control, a good plan to regain that control might be to learn as much as possible or make a list of questions to ask during their next medical appointment. Similarly, if your partner is feeling hopeful, they might consider reflecting on their faith or spirituality, or focusing on stories of patients with positive outcomes and good quality of life.

Remember that you will also experience emotional stress through this process. Take time to navigate your collective emotions together.

Physical Care

Depending on the type of therapy your partner receives, they may need support with physical care before, during, or after treatment.

Before treatment, you can talk with your partner’s doctor to understand all pre-operative instructions to ensure they are met. These could include:

  • Losing weight
  • Eating healthier and exercising more
  • Stopping smoking or avoiding alcohol

During and after treatment, you may need to:

  • Learn how to take care of the wound (if your partner had surgery).
  • Understand what to watch for (like an infection) that might immediate care.
  • Take steps to manage treatment side effects, such as nausea after chemotherapy or fatigue caused by hormone therapies.
  • Help with basic physical tasks, such as bathing or grooming, as your partner recovers.

Wellness

Staying as healthy as possible is important for both you and your partner, whether you’re preparing for treatment or recovering from it. Take these steps to keep your body strong during your breast cancer journey together:

  • Watch what you eat. This may not be easy to do when you or your partner are stressed or fatigued, but nutritious meals are the first step toward a healthy body. Taking time to prepare meals in advance or arranging a meal train with the assistance of friends can help ensure that you and your partner are getting the nutrients you need to keep your energy and spirits up.
  • Exercise. After cancer treatment, your partner may not feel like walking or exercising much. When your partner is cleared for physical activity, one of the best things you can do is take an active role in helping them in this return to exercise and physical activity.

Open Communication

Keep the lines of communication open with your partner. Allowing them to share their feelings and fears with you can support their emotional health and help you work together through the process. Cancer impacts all facets of life, not just health, and having someone to talk to is critical. While it's helpful to keep a positive attitude, research has shown that it's important to also express the negative emotions that come with cancer.

As feelings run strong, there will be times when you and your partner experience a myriad of emotions. Providing support to your partner during these times is critical. They will need an emotional anchor, and you're it, whether you like it or not.

Remember: Sometimes not saying anything is better than saying the wrong thing. Let your partner know that their emotions matter and understand that your actions tell them that you care, even if you don't have the words to say it.

Keeping Up the Household

Life goes on, even during cancer treatment. If your partner traditionally manages the household, you may need to develop plans to help keep your home in order while you and your partner deal with cancer treatment. Things to consider include childcare, grocery shopping and meals, house cleaning, and how you will work with your spouse’s employer (or your own) while you cope with cancer.

Financial Help

Unfortunately, financial stress is an important consideration. Be sure to talk with your partner about insurance needs (co-pays, deductibles and prior authorization requirements) and your current financial situation. If your partner manages your monthly bills, it’s important to communicate about household finances so you can manage them if necessary while your partner undergoes treatment.

Planning a budget—including making a plan for emergency funds should you need them—is an important step in this process. Having financial peace of mind will give your partner one less thing to worry about as they focus on their health.

Treatment Planning

Though partners will take many roles in helping a loved one navigate cancer diagnosis and treatment, being an advocate is one of the most important.

Being a strong advocate means many things, including:

  • Learning about your partner’s cancer and asking questions regarding treatments and next steps
  • Taking notes during medical appointments
  • Staying organized with paperwork, such as bills, prescriptions, lab reports and more
  • Keeping a calendar of appointments, tracking medication, and maintaining contact with the care team
  • Acting in your partner’s best interest and ensuring they get the care they want and need
  • Following up with doctors and other providers as needed
  • Encouraging your partner to be their own advocate and take an active approach to their care

Caring for Yourself

It’s easy to feel alone as a primary caregiver to someone with cancer. As you work to support your partner, don’t forget to take time to care for yourself as well. In addition to the tips above (which will also work for you), here are other ways to care for yourself during the cancer journey:

  • Remember that you’re not alone. Seek support from friends, neighbors, and relatives. Not all of them may step up to assist, but you will be surprised at what some people will do if you just ask them. Seek their help in driving to appointments, staying with your partner while you're at work, or doing errands you ordinarily do but don't have time for anymore.
  • Be open and honest. Everyone has a different attitude toward cancer. Some people will get up and run away if you try to tell them what's wrong with your partner. Others will cry, get angry, or ignore the whole situation. You can't control their reactions, but you can control your reactions to them.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I help my wife who has breast cancer?

Just being married seems to help. Married women with cancer have better survival rates than unmarried women. Being there for emotional support and shouldering the burdens of financial worries and treatment planning are some of the important ways a spouse can help.

Can my wife have children after breast cancer treatment?

Chemotherapy can damage a woman’s ovaries and may cause infertility. Discuss this possibility with doctors before starting treatment. Having a baby, though, should not put your wife at risk for recurrence despite the changes in hormone levels during pregnancy.

A Word From Verywell

If your partner has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your role cannot be understated. Some male partners have commented that they don't feel as important as girlfriends run to the scene, but your role is critical to your loved one’s recovery.

At the same time, don't forget to take care of yourself. Remember what flight attendants tell us when boarding a flight? Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chou AF, Stewart SL, Wild RC, Bloom JR. Social support and survival in young women with breast carcinomaPsychooncology. 2012;21(2):125–133. doi:10.1002/pon.1863

  2. National Cancer Institute. Feelings and cancer. Updated August 20, 2018.

  3. American Cancer Society. Caregiving before and after cancer surgery. Updated February 6, 2020.

  4. Rapport L. Marriage is good for cancer patients. Reuters. Published April 11, 2016.

  5. American Cancer Society. Pregnancy after breast cancer. Updated October 3, 2019.

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