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When cancer cannot be cured: A qualitative study on relationship changes in couples facing advanced melanoma

  • Natalie Drabe (a1), Josef Jenewein (a1), Steffi Weidt (a1), Lucia Engeli (a2), Caroline Meier (a1), Stefan Büchi (a3), Karin Schad (a4), Verena Schönbucher (a1), Claudia Canella (a5) and David Garcia Nuñez (a1)...



The aim of this qualitative study was to gain a deeper understanding about couples' relationship changes over time (the first six months) after one partner is diagnosed with an incurable advanced melanoma (stage III or IV).


In semistructured interviews, eight patients and their partners were asked separately about potential changes in their relationship since diagnosis. The same questions were asked again six months later, but focusing on relationship changes over the preceding six months. Some 32 audiotaped interviews were analyzed applying qualitative content analysis.


At baseline (t1), relationship changes were mostly reported in terms of caring, closeness/distance regulation, and communication patterns. While changes in caregiving and distance/closeness regulation remained main issues at six months follow-up (t2), greater appreciation of the relationship and limitations in terms of planning spare time also emerged as major issues. Unexpectedly, 50% of patients and partners reported actively hiding their negative emotions and sorrows from their counterparts to spare them worry. Furthermore, qualitative content analysis revealed relationship changes even in those patients and partners who primarily reported no changes over the course of the disease.

Significance of results:

Our findings revealed a differentiated and complex picture about relationship changes over time, which also might aid in the development of support programs for couples dealing with advanced cancer, focusing on the aspects of caring, closeness/distance regulation, and communication patterns.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Natalie Drabe, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Zürich, University of Zürich, Rämistrasse 100, 8091 Zürich, Switzerland. E-mail:


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Palliative & Supportive Care
  • ISSN: 1478-9515
  • EISSN: 1478-9523
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