Q. My son's partner was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the prognosis is not good. He is very much part of our family. Our son looks very stressed and sad and sometimes is irritable and short with me, which is very unlike him. We have talked to him about getting some help but he says no one will understand because his partner is a man. What can we do?


Your son and son-in-law are both very fortunate to have your support. People in even the most devoted and long-standing gay relationships may not get the same degree of social recognition and support as straight couples. Coping with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis can be a difficult experience and is compounded when one is the primary caregiver, as it sounds like your son may be. With much of the focus on the person with cancer, the needs of caregivers can be unintentionally overlooked and this dynamic is even more likely to be present in gay relationships. Your son is having a very normal reaction to a difficult circumstance, but I feel that the emotional changes you describe could increase without professional support. It is not unusual for gay people to be concerned about being rejected or misunderstood, but there are ways to help your son connect to mental health professionals who are sensitive and open. You can contact us and speak with an oncology social worker for support and referrals to local resources.

Another point gay partners need to consider when faced with a cancer is ensuring that certain rights are addressed and attended to proactively. Gay partners have encountered barriers to areas that others may take for granted such as hospital visitations and medical decisions. Some states address concerns such as these by recognizing domestic partnerships, but there are other measures that can provide certain protections such as having your son-in-law prepare a health care proxy, living will, or power of attorney. These documents will help facilitate communication with health care providers. To locate free legal services to help with these protections, please visit http://www.lawhelp.org.

Although you write out of concern for your son, a cancer diagnosis impacts the entire family and I hope you won’t ignore your own need for support. CancerCare services include telephone and online support groups for people with cancer and their loved ones and we also offer a number of publications.