Caring for a partner during prostate cancer treatment can take a toll on your emotions, especially when your partner is experiencing mood changes. Tending to everyone’s mental health is an important part of treatment and healing from serious illness.

It’s normal for this to be an emotional time both for the person undergoing treatment and close family members. “For patients and caregivers, it’s important to understand that these symptoms are not uncommon and that they are not alone,” says Karen E. Knudsen, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.

This guide will help you understand the emotional toll of prostate cancer treatment and how you can help your partner (and yourself) through the rocky stages of recovery.

Potential causes for mood changes

  • stress of cancer diagnosis and treatment decisions
  • side effects of treatment
  • sexual dysfunction
  • pain
  • financial hardship
  • fear and anxiety
  • depression
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Dealing with prostate cancer is bound to be stressful and frightening.

From diagnosis to recovery, a person may experience fear, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem due to changes in their body image or sense of masculinity. Sexual side effects of treatment can be especially difficult.

“Erectile dysfunction is a side effect of treatment for prostate cancer, which has a severe impact on one’s sexual health, self-esteem, and perceived virility,” says Brian McNeil, MD, vice-chair of the Department of Urology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University.

“This can lead to anxiety and stress where some men struggle [with] wondering if they will ever be able to lead healthy sexual lives again.” McNeil adds that this can put a strain on relationships.

Mood shifts are a side effect of the hormone therapy used to treat some cases of prostate cancer. Other side effects include hot flashes, muscle weakness, fatigue, and weight gain, all of which can also affect moods.

In particular, hormone therapy for prostate cancer lowers the patient’s testosterone levels, which can impact mood and libido, McNeil says.

Cancer treatment can also cause side effects that affect a person’s ability to work. A 2020 review of 21 articles identified three ways that prostate cancer treatment can impact a patient’s ability to work. For one, prostate cancer treatment may cause urinary incontinence, an embarrassing problem that complicates working outside the home.

People diagnosed with prostate cancer may also be disappointed to realize they can’t get back to work as fast as they had expected due to recovery time.

Finally, taking time from work for cancer treatment — plus the cost of treatment itself — can lead to financial stress.

As early as the diagnosis phase, your partner may start to experience anxiety while waiting for more information about whether they have prostate cancer, what treatment will be needed, and how advanced the cancer is.

During this time, they may benefit from talking with other people with prostate cancer to remind them that they’re not alone in this process.

Receiving a prostate cancer diagnosis may lead to fear over whether the cancer is fatal. McNeil explains that this fear of death is normal, but there’s hope, as men can survive for a very long time after being diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer.

The emotional strain may make communication difficult. For example, you may be able to tell your partner is struggling emotionally, even if they don’t tell you exactly what’s wrong.

Knudsen suggests starting out with a plan for both patient and caregiver to support their emotional well-being with self-care and professional support during cancer treatment.

“Regularly reviewing these strategies will be important, as needs can change along the course of prostate cancer treatment,” Knudsen says.

Try Mental Health America’s tips for having difficult conversations about mental health:

  • Listen actively, giving your full attention and summarizing what you hear.
  • Ask how you can help. Make a few suggestions if they don’t know what would make them feel better.
  • Don’t judge, minimize, or criticize.
  • Offer to go with them to a doctor’s appointment, support group, or any activity that seems overwhelming.

You don’t have to feel helpless while your loved one struggles emotionally. These are some good first steps for helping a partner deal with mood shifts during prostate cancer treatment.

  1. Listen to your partner. “I was told as a child that we were born with a pair of eyes, ears, and only one mouth. I have taken this to mean that we should watch and listen twice as much as we speak,” McNeil says. “Partners and caregivers of those suffering from prostate cancer should watch and listen to their loved ones.”
  2. Affirm what they tell you. A key to emotional support is letting them know you hear them and how they feel is valid.
  3. Encourage them to talk with family and friends.
  4. Listen to what they are not saying too. Your partner may not feel comfortable being vulnerable with you, McNeil says. If that’s the case, they may need support from other patients or a mental health professional.
  5. If they’re not comfortable talking with others, suggest they try writing about their feelings as a way to process them.
  6. Have your own emotional support in place to prevent burnout. Caregiving is a huge job. You will also experience stress, fatigue, and anxiety. McNeil encourages both caregivers and patients to participate in support groups during cancer treatment and to receive therapy when possible.
  7. Give support groups a try. “Support groups have been shown in scientific studies to increase mental health and reduce psychological distress in prostate cancer patients,” Knudsen says. Check out the American Cancer Society’s prostate cancer survivors network.
  8. Keep doctors informed about mood changes, especially if they could be a side effect of treatment.

“I was told as a child that we were born with a pair of eyes, ears, and only one mouth. I have taken this to mean that we should watch and listen twice as much as we speak. Partners and caregivers of those suffering from prostate cancer should watch and listen to their loved ones.” — Brian McNeil

Neither you nor your partner are alone in your prostate cancer journey. It may be helpful to keep a list of people, contact information, and places you can reach out to for mental health support, including the following:

  • Doctors and healthcare professionals on your treatment team.
  • Family members and friends who are nearby to help with practical matters or who can listen when you need someone to talk with.
  • Support groups for cancer patients and their loved ones.
  • A therapist or counselor. (Your cancer treatment center may be able to connect you with counseling services.)
  • Other patients and caregivers you can connect with one-on-one.

Caring for a partner during prostate cancer treatment can take a toll on everyone’s emotions, and mood shifts are not uncommon. It’s normal for this to be an emotional time, but it’s important to know that support is available.