Using Communication to Build Stronger Relationships After a Cancer Diagnosis

Ali Schaffer, LCSW
Manager, Patient and Family-Centered Care at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center

Many people feel a loss of control after a cancer diagnosis.  This feeling, along with the triage-cancer-blog-relationshipsother emotional responses, can impact many areas of life, including intimate relationships.  Even without a cancer diagnosis, relationships are complicated and require time, energy and work to be successful.

Cancer is happening to both of you.  “The unique dynamics that define each couple are in precarious balance during good times and easily upset during crisis.” -Jane Hill, CURE Magazine

For many people, cancer represents a crisis and a lot of change(s).  During a crisis, such as cancer, it can be helpful to stop and return to the basics as a way to stabilize yourself and/or your relationships.  Through clear, honest and open communication you may experience a stronger relationship.

People cope differently…in life and with cancer.

In addition to acknowledging each persons’ individual coping style and response to cancer (which may change over time), communication is one of the most valuable tools that can help you and your partner connect during this stressful time and build/maintain a strong relationship.  Each relationship, with or without a cancer diagnosis, has unique strengths and weaknesses.  And, the pre-existing dynamics of the relationship will likely continue to impact the relationship post-cancer diagnosis.

Many couples benefit from working with a licensed professional for additional guidance to navigate the common issues and communication challenges associated with the unique experience of living with cancer.

Here are some tools and thoughts for creating meaningful and productive communication within your relationship:


  • Discuss ALL of your feelings.
  • Set aside some time to create safe space in which to talk about your feelings and work to understand the other persons’ feelings.
  • Listen with a sense of curiosity, reflecting back what you hear, acknowledge your partner’s feelings and take in what he/she has said before you respond, even if you disagree.
  • Take relaxing breaths.
  • Ask for a time-out.
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Be willing to ask for help.
  • Share expectations of yourself and others.
  • Assumptions can be
  • Sometimes you don’t need answers, you just need someone to listen.


  • “We’ve never talked about this before.”
  • “I’m embarrassed.”
  • “I get so emotional/angry/mad/sad when we talk and it makes it difficult for me to clearly say what I mean.”
  • “He/She doesn’t want to talk about it.”
  • “It never seems to be the right time.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, or how to start a conversation.”
  • “He/She won’t listen to me.”


  • Priorities-does anything need to be changed?
  • Meaning of cancer and impact of treatment
  • Intimacy and sex
  • Needs and wants
  • Personal/Caregiver/Couple/Family goals
  • Finances
  • Feelings
  • “I see you…and I appreciate…”
  • What is fun?
  • Healthcare navigation
  • Getting back couple time
  • How can we create a cancer-free zone?
  • What happens after treatment ends?
  • Changes in roles

Initially, it may feel difficult or awkward to use these communication tools or to initiate these types of conversations.  Overtime, it will likely become easier and feel more natural to communicate with your partner and ultimately feel heard, understood and supported.  The information and tips included are suggestions, and it might take multiple attempts to find what works for you and your partner.  It is also important to revisit these topics and techniques as your needs and responses will change.  Hopefully, this will help you and your partner to create meaningful dialogue that can strengthen your relationship and aid your ability to cope with cancer.

For more practical tips and tools to strengthen your relationship, tune into to the webinar on March 22, 2017! Register today!

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