Helping a Loved One With Advanced Prostate Cancer

by Holly Pevzner Health Writer

Roughly 2.5 million men in the U.S. will receive a prostate cancer diagnosis this year, according to the American Cancer Society. About a quarter of them will be told they have advanced prostate cancer, meaning the cancer has spread beyond the prostate. It’s a tough diagnosis that impacts both the patient and his loved ones. But research shows partner support can be instrumental in making the diagnosis easier. In fact, 69% of advanced prostate cancer patients say a partner is the number-one source of motivation and support. Here’s how to best buoy the man in your life who’s currently facing this disease.

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Educate Yourself About Prostate Cancer

“Knowing common terms allows you to better communicate with providers and help your loved one make treatment decisions,” says Carolyn Vachani, RN, managing editor at OncoLink, an educational resource for patients, caregivers, and practitioners. “If you understand what’s going on, you can help your loved one understand better, too.” The best part? Your quest for knowledge often rubs off on your loved one. According to a recent Ipsos survey, 57% of advanced prostate cancer patients say those who’ve supported them the most have done so by encouraging them to be more informed about their disease.

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Be Your Loved One’s Best Advocate

“When you become the organizer, record keeper, and question-compiler, you allow your loved one with cancer to focus on himself, which is greatly needed,” notes Vachani. Plus, many men bank on your help. According to a 2018 report in the journal Clinical Genitourinary Cancer, half of prostate cancer patients surveyed confirmed that they rely on caregivers to ask the most important questions about their cancer. That’s key, because “patients often forget their questions as soon as they enter the exam room,” notes Vachani, who suggests compiling a list of questions together prior to all appointments (and taking notes while there).

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Support Your Loved One’s Decisions

That said, it’s your loved one who must make the final call about his own care. And 76% of men with advanced prostate cancer say they prefer to be fully involved in treatment decisions, reports a survey from ZERO, The End of Prostate Cancer. “It’s crucial for the patient to claim some control and make decisions,” says Francoise Adan, M.D., chief whole health and well-being officer at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. “Know that some decisions are less important than others. Once your loved one feels more in control, he’ll often ask you and others to help with decision-making.”

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Be a Good Listener

“Listening is a precious gift you can give someone dealing with cancer,” adds Dr. Adan. (A Harris Interactive poll found that 41% of men with advanced prostate cancer found talking to family members helped them cope.) “Offer a space where your loved one can share his feelings without restraints or fear of making you sad.” The best way to do that? Practice active listening by offering your full attention, eye contact, and zero judgement—then summarize back what’s been said. (And, remember: Silence is OK on occasion, too.)

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Quiet Your Inner Cheerleader

“I cringe when I hear people say that a positive attitude is necessary when dealing with cancer,” says Vachani. “Your loved one has been dealt some terrible cards, and it’s OK to be angry or sad, at times. As a loved one, your blind positivity—a.k.a. cheerleading—can minimize the reality of the situation.” Saying things like, “Everything is going to be fine,” or “You’re a fighter!” can even be interpreted as disrespectful, notes Dr. Adan. “You need to leave room for your loved one to share vulnerability. Remember, being resourceful and helpful is different than being a cheerleader.”

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Delegate What You Can’t Do

“As with any illness, a loss of independence is a stark reminder of being sick. Needing to ask for help in personal care is a hard pill to swallow,” says Vachani. This may be why 59% of men with advanced prostate cancer surveyed said they were concerned about becoming a burden to family. Ease your loved one’s mind by determining which tasks might be better handled by someone else. Remember, it may not be safe or feasible for you to provide certain types of care. “Always talk to your loved one about his needs and who he wants to help,” she adds.

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Find Ways to Be a Couple

A prostate cancer diagnosis can change you and your partner’s physical and emotional relationship. For example, 48% of men with advanced prostate cancer report that their sex life is among the three most-impacted areas of their life. Working through the grief process that follows sexual losses can help facilitate the recovery of intimacy, according to The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The study goes on to note that, for many couples, expert support, such as with a certified sex therapist, can be helpful. And, consider the activities you once did as a couple B.C. (before cancer), like movie nights or long walks—then continue them as much as possible.

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Find a Stress-Relieving Outlet

“While it’s a personal decision, many caregivers benefit from support groups,” says Dr. Adan. “Sometimes, they’re one of the only places where caregivers can find validation, and be themselves.” Finding support doesn’t have to be folks sitting in a circle talking about their feelings. A 2019 study in the European Journal of Oncology Nursing showed that coloring and open-studio art therapy greatly relieved the stress of cancer patient caregivers. After 45-minutes of art, caregivers expressed a boost in pleasure and enjoyment and a decrease in anxiety, stress, and burnout.

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Care for Yourself, Too

Folks who are caregiving for a loved one with advanced cancer often neglect self-care, like having adequate rest and social interactions, according to a 2018 report featured in the journal Support Care Cancer. That oversight (or inability) is associated with anxiety, depression, and poorer caregiving, such as less effective decision-making. “The truth is, many of us are better at helping others than ourselves,” says Dr. Adan. “But as flight attendants remind us, we must place the oxygen mask on ourselves before helping someone else.” So, move yourself up on the priority list. Enlist the help of others when you need it.

Holly Pevzner
Meet Our Writer
Holly Pevzner

Holly Pevzner specializes in creating health, nutrition, parenting and pregnancy content for a variety of publications, such as EatingWell, Family Circle, Parents, and Real Simple. Before becoming a full-time writer, Holly held senior staff positions at Prevention, Fitness, and Self magazines, covering medical health and psychology. She was also a contributing editor at Scholastic Parent & Child magazine. She resides with her family in Brooklyn, New York.