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Navigating Relationship Changes When You Have Lymphoma

Posted on June 23, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN

When one partner is diagnosed with a serious illness like lymphoma, it introduces new dynamics to the relationship. Thoughts about what the future may hold brings life into sharper focus. In ideal circumstances, facing lymphoma together will fortify your bond.

Unforeseen challenges during the different stages of lymphoma, including the initial diagnosis, various treatments, and periods of remission, may add stress and heightened emotions to daily life. One MyLymphomaTeam member shared, “I do worry about the effect of my cancer and treatment (and what it does to me) on my marriage. I have no idea how to navigate such a minefield. What can I do to make this easier for my husband? I don’t want my illness to destroy him too.”

By learning to communicate with compassion, you and your partner can build a resilient foundation to strengthen your relationship under the weight of lymphoma.

When You’re Diagnosed With Lymphoma

A lymphoma diagnosis often comes with an initial feeling of shock for everyone involved. Your partner without lymphoma may harbor lots of unanswered questions and react by either completely shutting down or frantically seeking to uncover every bit of research and information. Finding out how to live a balanced life is vital to your and your partner’s mental health. Sometimes that requires the assistance of a support group or trained therapist.

Initiate Communication

Many people have a hard time taking the first steps to open up a dialogue about cancer, especially if they’re worried about upsetting or burdening others with their feelings. Don’t hesitate to talk about important issues, including the hard topics that your partner may be afraid to address with you.

Look for quiet times during the day or evening to check in, bring up your diagnosis, and share your worries, and give your partner an opportunity to be both vulnerable and caring. Two-way conversations where you take turns seeking and providing support will set the stage for a collaborative approach to life with lymphoma as a couple.

One member noted the importance of communication, saying, “Some days will be easier than others once you start your treatments. There isn’t anything normal about cancer, but I found talking about our feelings made us both able to accept my diagnosis.”

While Coping With the Effects of Lymphoma Treatment

It can take time for your partner to come to terms with the side effects of your lymphoma treatment. Both the person undergoing therapy and their loved ones are forced to accept changes when cancer treatment begins. Having an idea of what to expect can help everyone prepare for the road ahead.

It’s not uncommon for appearances and moods to shift in response to lymphoma treatments. You and your partner should anticipate side effects such as:

  • Changes in appetite, food preferences, and taste
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Different sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Moments of depression or a desire to limit social activity

Trying to keep the perspective that these changes are due to treatments and do not define you or your partner can help you maintain sight of your true selves.

Learn To Redefine Romance

Lymphoma can reduce sex drive for both men and women undergoing treatment. Other sexual changes may include vaginal dryness, erectile dysfunction, and pain during sex. Emotions related to cancer and body image can also become a roadblock to intimacy. By talking through these issues with your partner and your health care provider, you can learn which symptoms are likely temporary and find strategies to overcome the challenges you face as a couple.

Romance and intimacy don’t just mean intercourse. Spend quality time together, ask questions about each other’s interests, share stories from the past, and maintain physical closeness by cuddling or holding hands. Just because romantic relationships evolve as a result of lymphoma or other life changes, that doesn’t mean the love is diminished.

Between Treatment Cycles or During Remission

The road to lymphoma recovery may be long and winding, with no guarantees. Finding moments to escape and take advantage of your better days will help keep joy and hope alive in your relationship.

Take a Break From Cancer

Sometimes lymphoma can become overwhelming and seem to consume every aspect of life. You can’t always avoid some of the lymphoma-related limitations (such as extreme fatigue, medical bills, weight loss, or work and social life changes), but you can look for opportunities to connect with your partner outside the world of cancer.

Let your loved one know that you think a day off from discussing medical issues could do you both some good. Try some of the following activities to break away from your routine:

  • Enjoy a meal or an afternoon outdoors.
  • Play a board game.
  • Read a book together (or listen to an audio book) and then discuss it.
  • Sort old photos and reminisce.
  • Take a scenic drive to a new (or beloved) place.
  • Pick up a new activity together, such as painting or working on a puzzle.
  • View a documentary and share your thoughts with each other.
  • Rewatch a favorite movie or TV series you used to enjoy together.

Even if it lasts just a short while, a much-needed respite from a cancer diagnosis could benefit your relationship and quality of life.

Celebrate Small (and Big) Wins

It’s not always easy to see the silver lining when you or your partner has lymphoma. However, finding little reasons to celebrate — say, getting a favorable test result or having the energy to go for a walk — can provide encouragement and positivity and lighten the burden of lymphoma.

Finding Support Outside of Your Relationship

Both you and your partner can take some pressure off your relationship by having access to support beyond each other. Along with working harder to connect with your partner, encourage them to seek counseling or support groups and spend time with trusted friends. Lymphoma can become an isolating experience for you and your family. Combat this painful effect by proactively fostering a community of support.

There will be certain topics that you or your partner don’t feel comfortable discussing together. Having another outlet can serve as a healthy coping strategy. Let your partner know that it’s OK for them to seek outside help through online communities, support groups, social groups, faith-based organizations, or a health care provider.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. More than 11,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.

Is life with lymphoma putting a strain on your relationships? What advice do you have for others? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyLymphomaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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