February 19, 2014
SIU Psychologist Offers Tips To Couples Dealing with Cancer
Facing a cancer diagnosis is stressful, but not just for individuals. Illness may have the greatest effect on long-term partnerships, said Patricia Fank, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Simmons Cancer Institute at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.
Some couples who face the challenges of cancer together may actually strengthen the relationship and their commitment to each other. However, couples who have struggled before the illness may find the stress of cancer creates additional problems, Fank said.
“Physically, relationship needs may change due to loss of independence, body image concerns, decreased libido and/or the presence of symptoms which may hinder intimacy,” Fank said. “Emotionally, couples may even try to protect each other by not sharing their experiences, which opens the door to misunderstandings.”
Fank said a cancer diagnosis may also cause role shifts in the relationship. “Changes in household responsibilities such as paying bills, grocery shopping, cooking or walking the dog, not being able to be as active socially, concerns about finances and employment, and altered life plans and goals are all concerns to both partners.”
She offers tips to couples on how to strengthen a relationship when a loved one is ill. “Good communication is essential,” Fank said. “Think of you and your partner as a team that strategizes together to make the best decisions about treatment, caregiving and other issues.
“Carve out time to talk when you won’t be interrupted. Discuss what is currently working and not working, and be sure to identify positive support vs. unsupportive behavior. Talk about how roles in your relationship may have shifted, and most importantly, share with your partner even the things you find most difficult to discuss.
Good communication can help prevent problems before they start. “Practice ‘active listening:’ don’t interrupt and don’t assume you know what your partner will say. Take turns listening to each other and repeating back what you have heard until you truly understand your partner's point of view,” Fank said. Friends and family and professional counselors can also offer support.
“Recognizing stress signals and being open to change are the first steps to controlling and managing stress,” Fank said.
For more information or to make an appointment, call 217-545-8000.
The mission of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU is to serve the people of central and southern Illinois by addressing their present and future cancer needs through education, research, patient care and community service. Its website is www.siumed.edu/cancer.