Harvard Mental Health Letter

Helping couples deal with medical challenges

Various types of couples therapy offer different approaches and coping strategies.

Traditional wedding vows include a promise to stay together in sickness and in health. But cancer, heart disease, major depression, substance abuse, and other types of serious medical illnesses can create stress in a marriage or in any type of committed relationship. Illness affects not only the person who receives the diagnosis, but his or her partner as well.

For example, a woman receiving treatment for breast cancer may be physically uncomfortable, constantly tired, and worried about her sexuality and body image. Likewise, a man undergoing treatment for prostate cancer may experience unpleasant side effects such as impotence and incontinence. Both are likely to worry about the future and their mortality. Although these concerns may surface at various times during cancer treatment, they can become especially troublesome once treatment ends, as couples make the transition to a "new normal."

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