How Cancer Affects Your Relationship

Jennie Bushnell and her husband Dan (pictured above) had been together six years when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Since she was pregnant with their second child and they chose to delay treatment until after the baby was born, they didn’t tell their families right away. “We were each other’s only confidant,” says Jennie. “We were each other’s only shoulder to lean on, because we didn’t know what our future would be at that point.” 

From then on their bond got even stronger—through endless doctors appointments and six months of treatment. According to new research, leaning on your partner during this time really can bring you closer. Among couples facing early-stage breast cancer, dealing with the illness as a team was associated with greater intimacy, according to a recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

From Illness to Intimacy
In this particular study, pairs who talked about how cancer was affecting them as a couple and truly listened to each other had greater intimacy at the follow up. That was also the case for Jennie and her husband who were spending even more time together than usual given all of her doctor’s appointments. They talked about the cancer, practical things like insurance and wills, the new addition they planned to put on their house, and the vacations they wanted to take with their kids. “It was a distraction, but I think we felt life if we thought long and hard enough about all the good things, they would just fall into place that way,” says Jennie. 

Aside from planning, they also retained their sense of normalcy—another factor that predicted intimacy in the study. “We tried to keep our sense of humor as much as possible,” says Jennie, who at one point shaved her head into a mohawk liberty spike—something her husband immediately adopted, too. “We had matching pink mohawks—his even had big pink polka dots.”  

The Relationship Rx  
Another new study in the Journal of Oncology found that married cancer patients were 20 percent less likely to die from the disease. While this association might be due to factors like better insurance and resources for women with spouses, it also shows the importance of a strong support system. “I don’t know how I would have been able to stay as positive going through it without my husband there,” says Jennie, who has been in remission for three years and is doing great. 

For many women like Jennie, their relationship and their disease influence each other from both directions. But as research shows, the effects can be positive for both. “It wasn’t pleasant, and I wouldn’t do it again,” says Jennie. “But maybe we never would have known how strong our relationship was without that incredible trial.”

More from Women's Health 
Sisters, Survivors 
When Cancer Caregivers Need Support 
What No One Tells You About Having Breast Cancer  

Photo credit: Jennie Bushnell 

 

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