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What I Wish People Knew About Facing Cancer with Your Spouse

A South Jersey couple shares how a recent breast cancer diagnosis has impacted their lives and how they’re supporting each other.

Janet Margraf knew the possibility of cancer was very real, with an extensive family history afflicting both her parents and several siblings. However, she never thought her own diagnosis would come so soon.

When diagnosed with breast cancer over the summer, Janet and her husband of 32 years and now-caregiver, John, had to adjust as a couple and as a team.

Caregiving, whether it’s for someone with cancer, dementia, or recovering from a stroke, can look different for everyone. For John, it’s involved assuming the role of chauffeur—accompanying his wife to chemotherapy treatments and helping her recuperate afterward—tackling many daily household tasks she used to handle, serving her breakfast in bed and much more.

Janet and John standing with their care team at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center

Janet and her husband John standing with Janet’s care team, including Stacey Jacobs, RN, BSN, OCN (far left) and Ana Maria Lopez, MD, MPH, MACP (far right) at the Medical Oncology & Infusion Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township.

One Step at a Time

Janet and John are still “new” to this lifestyle change, but they’ve fallen into a “groove,” notes John. “We are learning as we go. One of the first things I learned was that the day after treatment is a good time for me to take off work because that’s when the bulk of her side effects hit.”

“Life moves fast, but we’re trying to keep it as ‘normal’ as possible,” continued John. “We’re not freaking out or becoming overwhelmed. We know that cancer – as scary as it sounds – is just like anything else that we have to overcome. We’re navigating our way through it together.”

Communication, Laughter, & Emotional Support

Caregiving is about much more than what’s tangible – the physical tasks that get done.

You have to communicate, urges Janet. “If you have cancer, try to remember that your loved one can’t see your cancer or feel what you feel. If something is bothering you, you need help, or you feel like something is wrong, speak up. Don’t feel like you’re complaining. They won’t know unless you tell them.”

Recently, Janet has faced some hurdles with brain fog, which is a common side effect of chemotherapy causing memory and attention complications.

“There was a moment when I felt she didn’t understand me or what I was saying,” said John. “She told me she couldn’t remember a conversation we had just had. Then it just clicked. She really didn’t remember it. This is something I have to understand and support her through.”

Even through the “ups” and “downs,” they’ve still maintained a sense of humor, Janet adds. “I think it’s important to still laugh, even about what’s going on. It’s not pretty, but you can’t let it consume you.”

Taking Time for Yourself

Caregiving doesn’t have to be 24/7; you should take breaks and focus on your own well-being.

“Janet never makes me feel like I can’t go out,” said John. “When I run to one of the kid’s houses to visit our grandchildren, part of me feels like I need to rush back home, but Janet has taught me that I don’t have to. I can stay for a while. I can take that extra time to just sit, talk, and enjoy.”

The Silver Linings

Fortunately, John has worked from home since the start of the pandemic. So, when Janet’s treatment began, he didn’t have to worry about leaving work. It’s easier to be there for Janet, and he takes time off when he needs to – on the hardest days.

Selfie photograph of Janet with her husband John standing over her shoulder

Janet with her husband John.

“John’s been great. He hears me get up in the morning, and within 10 minutes, he brings me my breakfast,” said Janet. “It’s nice to have him right in the next room.”

Despite times of hardship and illness, it hasn’t all been negative, continues John: “I think experiencing this makes you realize even more what you’re grateful for in life, and thinking of the positives can actually be very uplifting.”

“It may sound selfish,” admitted John, “but I’ve enjoyed having more time with her. Before, we both went about our busy days. Now that we can stay home and be closer to each other, it’s kind of a ‘silver lining.’”

While there’s a lot involved in caregiving, John says that it hasn’t been as difficult as one might think. Instincts kick in and you do what you need to do. Fortunately, he and Janet have had help from their children and other family and friends. “People really do come out of the ‘woodwork.’ Even something as simple as dropping off dinner has been a huge help.”

More than anything, though, John said it’s Janet’s strength that’s guided them through this journey so far.

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