9 Ways to Support a Partner With Metastatic Breast Cancer

Let’s start with what a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is not: a death sentence. In fact, as many as 34% of the 154,000 women with this diagnosis have survived five years or more. True, that’s not as comforting as the 90% who make it past five years with stage 2 breast cancer. But with the right treatment, many women can and do live long lives with MBC. Still, it’s scary, and a solid support system can make a huge difference in day-to-day life. These strategies can help you help your partner navigate this stressful time.

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Team Up for Appointments

From surgery to chemo to targeted therapy and complementary treatments, there are tons of options for aggressively tackling this disease. It’s a lot to take in. She might say she can go by herself, but doctor appointments will be loaded with info that’s hard to retain under the best circumstances, let alone when your mind is racing with “what now?” thoughts. Volunteer to be her extra set of ears and personal note-taker, says Kathleen Ashton, Ph.D., director of behavioral health at Cleveland Clinic Breast Center.

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Run the Communications Department

The term metastatic breast cancer is no joke, and it’s natural that friends and family will want to know the latest developments. Also natural: They will be hesitant to contact your partner directly, for fear of upsetting her or invading her privacy. And it may be too much for her to keep everyone in the loop, anyway, given the energy she’ll be spending on staying on top of this disease. It’s often helpful for a partner to take over the role of providing updates, Ashton says.

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Coordinate Efforts

When a loved one is sick, everyone wants to help, which can be a blessing to protect you from burnout, Ashton says. Friends or family members can make meals, clean the house, or pick up the kids. To get the most out of everyone’s generosity, make a list of chores people can sign up for—including you and your partner when she feels able. Keeping her involved in the organizational process will make it easier to tweak things as her energy shifts, adds healthcare consultant Barbara Kivowitz, co-author of Love in the Time of Chronic Illness.

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Share Online Research

The diagnosis of MBC is a loaded one, with as much false information out there as legit intel. Gathering data and advice from reputable websites can be useful in cutting through the emotional stuff and getting straight to the facts, Kivowitz says. Check out websites like breastcancer.org and Susan G. Komen, which offer science-based info and community support. You can keep a paper or electronic file of helpful resources to look at together during moments of uncertain thoughts and feelings.

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Avoid Information Overload

On the flip side of the coin, the internet can be a dangerous rabbit hole, with one website leading to another. While knowledge is power, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing and that can cause both of you to obsessively research a condition for which there is still no cure. Consider setting a time limit—30 minutes, say—that you spend googling MBC on any given day. Keep in mind, too, that metastatic breast cancer treatment is highly individualized. Online stories, both good and bad, don’t always apply but can easily increase anxiety, Ashton says.

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Schedule Say-Anything Time

Sometimes, it can be upsetting and awkward to talk about the tough stuff that comes with an MBC diagnosis, including end-of-life care. It may be useful to set aside a designated time each week when you both can express your feelings, Kivowitz says. One person talks, the other listens. Then switch. As difficult as these conversations can be, it’s important to support her by conveying empathy and appreciation for what she’s saying. “It’s an important reminder,” Kivowitz says, “that the illness hasn’t gone away, but you’re not in it alone.”

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Organize Cancer-Free Days

Between appointments and treatments, metastatic breast cancer can dominate your lives. Without realizing it, it’s easy for you to start thinking of your partner as a patient, rather than companion. Now more than ever, it’s important to celebrate your relationship. Schedule regular dates together, figuring out a time between treatments when she’ll be feeling better, and be flexible with a backup in case she’s not up for the original plan. Most importantly, make sure the disease talk gets a rest, Kivowitz says.

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Celebrate Spontaneity

Like any disease, metastatic breast cancer has moments of ups and downs. You’ll learn the rhythm of treatments and when you partner’s energy is higher or lower. Make plans for those feeling-good windows so you both have something to look forward to. But most of all, be ready to drop everything and go for a sunset drive or morning walk—just because you both feel like it. Energy levels can change day to day, Ashton says, so keep a list of ideas handy that can you can act on quickly.

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Establish Weekly Rituals

It could be playing cards, working on a puzzle, or binge-watching a Netflix series. If it makes you both laugh, even better. No one is asking you to pretend everything is great, but it’s important to maintain as many light moments as possible, Kivowitz says. Even scheduled normalcy can provide a sense of stability that’s much needed as you wade together through unchartered waters. “It creates a sense that if I’m okay in this moment,” she says, “I’ll be okay.”

Steve Calechman
Meet Our Writer
Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman is a long-time journalist. He’s written about everything from cooking pasta to desalination systems. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, EXOS and Harvard Health about a range of health and wellness topics, from stress reduction to mindset to building a relationship with your doctor. You can visit his website at stevecalechman.com.