Cancer patients and domestic violence: More common than you might think

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By Stephen Collazo, Department of Social Work

October is national Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And while it may be difficult to imagine someone with cancer in an abusive relationship, it's more common than you might think. 

Anytime someone hurts or threatens to hurt his or her partner in any way (physically, emotionally or sexually), it's called intimate partner violence (IPV) -- more commonly known as domestic violence.

While statistics show that 85% of people affected by intimate partner violence are female, it doesn't mean that men can't be abused by their partners. Intimate partner violence occurs in all races, ages, economic classes and sexual orientations. 

Cancer diagnosis and abuse
When the person being abused has been diagnosed with cancer, there are even more complicated issues that can occur. 

For example, the patient might have to rely on the abuser for financial reasons, or to provide transportation to appointments, manage medication or help with basic daily tasks.

All of this can make an abuser feel like he or she has more control and more power, and therefore easier to inflict abuse without meeting any resistance.

In some instances, the abuser might not be related to the person diagnosed with cancer.

If you're a caregiver and someone is abusing you, it's important to remember that there's no excuse for violent or abusive behavior in a relationship.

Perpetrators of intimate partner violence are skilled at making the victim feel responsible for the abuse. The perpetrator also is adept at minimizing and excusing his or her abusive behavior.

Are you in a safe relationship?
The following list of questions will help you identify whether you're in a relationship that's not safe:
  • When I'm with my partner, do I feel as if I'm walking on eggshells?
  • Does my partner call me names, make me feel stupid or tell me that I can't do anything right?
  • Does my partner limit my contact with friends or family or get overly jealous of my other relationships?
  • Does my partner stop me from taking care of myself by doing things such as controlling my medications or keeping me from coming to my appointments?
  • Has my partner ever kicked, hit, choked or used an object to physically hurt me, or threatened to do so?
  • Has my partner ever forced or pressured me to have sex against my will?
  • After an argument in which my partner has physically or verbally hurt me, has my partner ever come back to me, brought me gifts and promised never to do it again?
  • Am I afraid of my partner?
If you answered yes to these questions, you're not alone and there are things you can do to stay safe in your relationship. 

Make a plan

Leaving a relationship is not always an option, but that doesn't mean you can't plan to stay safe.
  • At home, plan an escape route ahead of time and know where you can go to stay safe.
  • Talk with a neighbor or friend who you can trust and ask that person to call 911 if they ever hear a disturbance at your house.
  • Develop a code word to let others know that you are in trouble so they can get help for you. Teach this code word and how to dial 911 to your children.
  • Stay away from places where weapons may be present during an argument, like the bathroom, garage or kitchen.
  • Get to a room with a window or door if you feel you're in danger.
If you feel that you do need to leave to keep yourself safe, the following items can be set aside ahead of time in a safe place to quickly take with you before you go:
  • Spare keys
  • Medications
  • Checkbook, money, credit cards
  • Identification: driver's license, birth certificate, Social Security card, passport
  • Things for your children: school records, insurance, immunization records or a favorite toy
Get help
The Department of Social Work at MD Anderson has social work counselors who are skilled and prepared to help individuals who have been affected by IPV. 

They can meet with you in person, talk with you over the phone, or communicate with you through myMDAnderson.

Remember, the level of abuse can become more frequent and violent if the abuser knows you're trying to get help, so it's important to be discreet when making plans.
You can contact someone from Social Work by calling 713-792-6195, by visiting the department's website, or by asking your doctor or nurse to speak with a social work counselor.

Safety and Your Relationship (video)

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