Madeline would say to me “You are my rock; you are my centurion.”

John W. Hansbury, husband of Madeline Kahn, actress and comedienne, who lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 1999.

Each year 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and 13,500 will die of this disease. Caught early there is a 92% survival rate. However, more often it is diagnosed in later stages because although there are symptoms, they are often attributed to other conditions. For symptoms and other information, please go to

Courageous women face the challenges that this diagnosis brings, but often flying under the radar and not receiving the attention that they deserve, are the partners of the patient. Peter Dottino, MD, FACOG, Board Certified Gynecological Oncologist & Gynecologist, notes, “It is important to recognize that the diagnosis of ovarian cancer and the subsequent treatment has an effect on the partners as well as the patient. Understandably, initially partners are also shocked and scared when they first hear that the person they love has cancer. Depending upon their relationship and where someone is in the treatment process, feelings and behaviors shift over time. Some partners come to all appointments, ask questions, and come to chemotherapy. Although my job is to treat the patient, I am always aware of the impact this disease has on their loved ones as well.”

Recognizing the stresses that partners face, Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF) has developed a comprehensive guide to gynecologic cancers with a special “By Her Side” section for partners and other caregivers which will be used in the second Woman to Woman program it has funded, this one at NY Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. The program consists of survivor volunteers who have had firsthand experience of dealing with gynecologic cancer who then work with newly diagnosed patients and families supporting them through diagnosis and treatment.

Audra Moran, CEO, of OCRF, states “OCRF recognizes how important partners (and family and friends) are to recovery, as well as the incredible stress they experience…so often, people are afraid to ask for help when they feel their partner going through treatment needs all the attention and focus. And of course, this is not true - we need to talk about their mental health as well, and address it continually.”

Arden Moulton, LCSW, Director of the first Woman to Woman Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital is very aware of the stresses partners face. She notes that, “While it is normal to experience feelings of anxiety and sadness, if a partner is feeling overwhelmed or experiencing persistent changes in mood, then ask your doctor for a referral for counseling.” She further recommends, “Connecting with a peer whose partner is also in treatment may help normalize the feelings of helplessness and anxiety. Get a name from your partner’s doctor or social worker at the hospital where she is being treated.”

Assimilating all the information and feelings that the disease brings and taking on extra responsibilities (i.e., increased household, financial, childcare, and chauffeuring duties) while trying to be strong for their partner, can be another challenge.

When asked, “What did you do to take care of yourself during difficult times?” Jose Irizarry, husband of Nancy, a Woman to Woman volunteer, responded, “I tried to keep as normal as I could. I would try to follow my normal routine as much as possible, working, exercising, social events, anything to minimize the disruption treatment was causing in our lives.”

John W. Hansbury adds, “Sometimes you have to escape, to have a night off, to forget the weight and fear of the diagnosis and what may happen to your loved one and your future together.”

Louise Pesano, partner of Mary Kelsch, stated, “My partner was a rather private person but following her diagnosis we decided it was important to develop a strong network of friends, family and strangers who would support us through difficult times. Our network, “Team Mary”, provided encouragement to both of us in so many ways, including daily/weekly cards, letters, phone calls and general care and support.”

And the best thing their partner or someone else did for them? “She needed me by her side at doctors’ appointments, treatment and before and after surgery, but she was also very flexible with me by using her family and friends to fill in when I was not able to participate with her in some of these events. Her family and friends were very helpful by volunteering to stay with her while she underwent chemotherapy so I would not have to miss work,” said Jose.

"Madeline would say to me, You are my rock; my centurion. No one will pay me a greater compliment and it was an honor and privilege to be there for her when she needed me, “John W. Hansbury recalled.

“My colleagues at work gave me the flexibility I needed to come and go as necessary. This allowed me to stay engaged at work and maintain a sense of normalcy in my life,” recalled Louise.

In terms of advice to others, John recommends, “First of all, arm yourself with information; for me it was from our oncologist, surgeon and from OCRF. Secondly, be your partner’s advocate: attend meetings with your surgeon and oncologist, take notes, ask questions, be the one who questions and compiles the information; the patient is often too weak or stunned or in despair to pay attention to the details of treatment and prognosis; that is your job...I would say to Madeline, “Someone has to survive and it might as well be you.”

“A spouse or partner will have to be very strong for their partner, help them in many ways from routine things around the house to arranging to have friends and family to assist with appointments, treatment and providing accompaniment and support. The partner will have to be very patient while being supportive and continuing to have a positive outlook on life. It’s not easy,” says Jose.

“Live life!” recommends Louise. “While Mary’s diagnosis was a devastating one, after the initial fear and shock of it passed, we focused on living as full a life as possible.”

Getting information, trying to live as normal a life as possible, and asking for help from organizations, family and friends can certainly help one navigate this difficult territory. Having and offering hope, even when faced with adversity or a painful loss can also help one deal and heal.

Starting the organization OCRF to fund research is what Sol Schreiber did when his wife Ann died of the disease in 1994. John W. Hansbury joined the Board of OCRF and is now its Co-President. “My work as a member of the Board of OCRF and now as Co-President is the greatest privilege in my life. The dedicated scientists, staff, board members and volunteers across the country are a constant inspiration and keep Madeline’s memory and struggle alive. Hopefully, this will end in better treatments and tests for ovarian cancer so that others will not have to go through what she and I did.” Jose Irizarry plans on joining his wife Nancy and her team of 50 for the TEAL Walk on September 8th at Prospect Park in Brooklyn to raise funds and awareness about ovarian cancer. For more info go to

So during September which is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, let’s remember that this disease affects the partners as well. They are unsung heroes who should never be forgotten.

About the Author

Robin Zarel LCSW

Robin Zarel, LCSW, is a New York-based therapist. She has been in practice for 30 years.

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