How to Care for a Partner with Cancer

By Patrick Steele

Elaine needs a caregiver? That’s outrageous. She is a very independent and courageous woman. But as her husband and partner, I had to step into this role when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

When Elaine and I first met in 2005, we stayed up late, telling stories. She showed me the scars on her shoulder where they’d cut out melanoma years before. I recall her words from that night like lines cut in glass. She told me nothing would stop her from grabbing everything she could. Was I willing to be with someone who had no illusions and no time to waste? Yes. She was the girl for me.

Elaine and Patrick (Photo credit: Danny Sit)
Elaine and Patrick (Photo credit: Danny Sit)

Then in 2007, she learned she had breast cancer, and went through a long period of surgeries and chemotherapy. We got back to normal until 2012, when Elaine was told her breast cancer had returned and spread through her bones, her liver, even her vocal cords. She told me with a poise and directness that I can’t even imagine having.

I had to find my own way as a caregiver. I needed to be honest, courageous, available, and make my intentions clear. It helped me to remember the night we met, when I accepted the fact that cancer liked this girl. I feel the same about her now as I did then. I want more of her. Much, much more.

So I do what I’m best at.

  • I make delicious, healthy food. We bought a juicer, so we can get more vegetables into our daily diet. My recipe has kale, beets, berries, carrot, celery, apple, parsley, lemon, and ginger.
  • I stay up to speed with her treatment. I take notes when she meets her oncologist and study nurse. I put her appointments in my calendar. I bring her meds and coffee every morning.
  • I make sure we keep our bodies and minds active. We exercise together at the gym or at home. We practice mindfulness meditation, yoga, and group healing. We go to acupuncture. Some days, it’s time for rest, and plans have to change.
  • I belong to a caregiver support group. I was a new member once, and now I can offer comfort to new caregivers with their own worries.

There are also two pieces of advice I have relied upon. One is gospel from the field of oncology: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Save yourself some breath, don’t run yourself out in the early going. The second came from a dear friend. She told me that if something needs doing that I’m not able to do, I have to find someone who can, without delay. That is my responsibility as a caregiver.

This advice is very handy, as it unwinds the tangle of pride and the urge to be a hero in one stroke. I’m not good at everything, far from it.

Elaine and I have an amazing life together: active, fun, and social. Never boring. We have the present, which seems magnified by our circumstances. We can frame the facts without despair. We have chosen a path toward insight and grace.

I can hear you saying, easy with the declarations, pal. You’re not the one who has cancer. To which I respond with more declarations:  I know I am lucky. Elaine is here with me, and I’m feeling brave.