What couples who faced breast cancer want others to know about the fight

Oct 13, 2015 at 7:30 a.m. ET
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Here are four honest tips to help a couple cope when one partner is battling breast cancer, from couples who have been through it.

1. Don’t avoid the tough conversations, but don't make that all you talk about either

While it’s essential to keep things as normal as possible, it’s equally important to not ignore the elephant in the room. Says Jacey, a 27-year-old breast cancer survivor, “My boyfriend was my primary caregiver. Barely 18 months into our relationship, suddenly Josh and I had to talk about egg preservation and whether or not he would be comfortable inseminating embryos to freeze.”

Jacey, who blogs at ThatTimeIHadCancer.com, adds, “Sex was complicated first by chemo, which destroys your sex drive, then surgery, which removed my breasts.”  After her recovery the couple was able to discuss candidly what it would take to get back to where they were sexually before the cancer invaded their lives.

The blogger says, “I had an early stage diagnosis. There are couples who’ve had to discuss medical proxies, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Orders and what life would look like for the survivor.”

More: Women talk candidly about fighting breast cancer (VIDEO)

This doesn’t mean the couple spent all their time discussing life and death matters during the ordeal — they laughed at funny cat videos and rejoiced when the Cubs made the playoffs. But their bond was cemented by not shying away from the big stuff.

2. Strategize as a team

“Caregivers need to be their partner’s 'cancierge,’” says Jacey. During treatment there will be a lot to keep track of — appointments, medical bills, path reports, doctors’ comments during meetings and she advises recording meetings because much valuable information and advice will be dispensed. Since the one being treated will obviously suffer many dips in energy and emotional will, the job of organizer falls primarily on the shoulders of the healthy ‘team member.'

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As does the job of advocating for an ill partner when a doctor or other authority figure doesn’t seem to be hearing your wishes. Jacey explains, “When I wasn’t up to it, I needed to allow Josh to get the ball over the net.”

3. Both of you need outside support communities

The job of caregiver often comes with several truckloads of guilt. Cara, 26 and married to a cancer survivor, recalls, “When my wife Martha was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago pretty much my every action and thought revolved around being there for her. Since I didn’t want to add to her burden, when I was upset I’d duck into a closet to cry. Her pain was so great, mine didn’t matter… or that’s how I felt.”

Not surprisingly Cara crashed and wound up sobbing in her partner’s arms. After a long discussion Martha joined a support group for cancer sufferers and Cara joined one for families of sufferers. Cara explains, “Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t be Martha’s everything… We went through the rest of the ordeal each having outside ears to turn to. Thankfully she’s been in remission for three years.”

4. Act as normal as possible

Pamela, 47, diagnosed almost eight years ago, found her partner’s lack of drama post-diagnosis refreshing. “I was very comforted by as much normalcy as possible.” She says, “Dann never acted like I was a different person or like I was suddenly in a totally different situation than him.”

More: 18 Powerful quotes from breast cancer survivors

Thankfully she has been cancer-free seven years and the relationship remains in good health, in large part because during the ordeal, Pamela reports, “Dann treated the cancer like a pain in the ass for me but something we would get through — like a broken leg.” However there is always a downside to business as usual. She jokes, “There can be too much honesty. When I tried on the wig I’d just purchased he told me I looked like one of the Beatles.”