Relationships… The impact of cancer on my marriage.
One of the first things I said to my husband when I was first diagnosed was “if this is too much, I get it, you don’t have to stick around for this”. Having met when we were very young, my husband and I have basically grown up together. We’ve been through good times, and bad. You don’t get to 23 years married without a few ups & downs after all. But cancer, that’s a whole new level. Not many people, when making vows on their wedding day, actually stop and consider the “in sickness and in health” bit, not properly – it is too abstract a notion.
Being less than a year past a particularly rocky patch when the diagnosis came, I wouldn’t have blamed him if it all felt like the final straw, and he had headed for the hills. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first guy to consider a cancer diagnosis just “too much” to handle.
However, he stayed, and in many ways, the months that followed brought us closer together than we’ve ever been. He came with me to appointments, sat with me as I had my chemo, looked after me on the days when I couldn’t look after myself, and put up with all of my crazy. The nights filled with hot flushes and nightmares, the mad steroid cravings, the days when I cried over my lack of hair, the times when I had pushed myself too far and burnt myself out and could barely move, and the days when I came up with some hare-brained idea that needed implementing – right now! He took it all in his stride, and looked after me and our kids throughout it all.
I’ve always had a problem with being dependent on people, I have an almost pathological need for independence and to be so strong, that I sometimes shut people out (including my husband) and don’t allow them to help. My friends know that I generally won’t talk about my problems with them until they are resolved or at least in progress of being fixed. I know that I can be so single-minded and set on achieving my goals that I don’t always stop to consider those around me enough, and the impact of actions on them. My husband is usually the one who unfortunately bears the brunt of this, whilst I grab all the control for myself and bend everyone else to my will. But cancer stripped me bare, and I had no choice but to be a bit vulnerable, dependent on those around me, and to give up that control that I grip on to so tightly.
For someone that isn’t great with words or big public shows of affection, but instead shows he cares by doing lots of little things to look after you, looking after me whilst I went through treatment stepped right into my husbands’ comfort zone, and he delivered admirably. We were in full-blown “fight cancer mode” so weren’t really thinking about the feelings stuff too much, just getting on with what needed to be done – the endless whirl of appointments, medicines, side effects, the chemo routine.
When people asked him how he was doing, the answer was always “I’m fine”. He joked that he should have it printed on a t-shirt, so he could just point to the words, and not even bother saying the same thing all over again. Maybe not the healthiest way of dealing, but it worked for us at the time. We were the dream-team, kicking cancer together. Me in cancer superhero mode, him my trusty side-kick.
He made me laugh when I needed, gave me cuddles and reassured me at other times, made sure I took my tablets on time, fed me with whatever craving took my fancy, and kept me hydrated with an endless supply of water and herbal teas. He made me his main focus, all eyes on getting Emma well again.
I think the hard point came after treatment finished. By the time I limped past the finish line, I was exhausted and more than a little bit broken by the whole thing. Where he wanted to just put it all behind us, and go back to “normal”. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be normal again, and this put a distance between us. My head was in a dark place, the side-effects ongoing, and the fatigue at an all-time high. Meanwhile, I think seeing his strong, independent wife so weak – mentally and emotionally a bit of a mess, was possibly harder for him than dealing with physical aspects of the cancer treatment.
He was also struggling from an emotional perspective, he told me one time about how he had nightmares about the chemo room, the memory of me knocked out with anti-histamine, literally grey with the poison pumping into my veins, surrounded by sick people – he said it was like seeing me dead already and that this image would haunt him forever. With neither of us being very good at dealing with our emotions and feelings, and being completely overwhelmed by emotions and feelings, we both retreated to our corners and shut-down. Me into a bubble of endless social-media scrolling, obsession over recurrence prevention, with a generous slug of anger, resentment, and self-pity on the side (on my more energetic days at least), him into a bottle, drowning his sorrows and trying to stay “fine”.
After I went back to work, I retreated further, a ball of fury and exhaustion. I was too tired to deal with anyone or anything, and again, I took this out on him. He reacted by going in to 100% turtle mode – not communicating, not interacting, not doing anything other than watching crappy sci-fi, drinking beer and being generally grumpy, cold & distant. We really did make quite a pair.
Maybe it’s the end?
I think we have both, at various times in the 18 months since treatment finished, pondered the question of “is it even worth it any more”. I say pondered, I mean flung it in each other’s faces in the middle of another argument. But after 23 years of marriage and everything we’ve been through together, I’m buggered if I’m going to let the after-effects of this crappy disease break my marriage apart. It’s really not easy at times though.
I’m still trying to work out who the hell I am these days – things that were desperately important to me previously just aren’t anymore. I have some serious body confidence issues thanks to the extra weight I’m carrying and the fact that I now declared my boobs enemies of the state, where previously they were one of my best assets and my husbands’ favourite things about me! I feel uncomfortable when he gives me compliments, and particularly if he pays any attention to “bad boob”
If I’m honest, I spend a lot of time scared that my husband won’t love me now that I am fatter, weaker, sadder, and mostly just changed. I find it hard to accept love because I don’t really love myself enough right now. Because I’m scared of the rejection, and riddled with self-doubt, I push him away and am mean and angry, rather than leave myself vulnerable.
Intimacy is in short supply, and I often think that when he looks at me, he doesn’t see a woman, he still sees a patient, someone that needs to be looked after rather than wooed. My self-confidence being where it is, I could do with some romancing. But is also entirely possible that this thing I think he see is in my head, and I am the one who is turning away and doing the rejecting.
We are like two caged animals, circling each other warily, neither one prepared to make the first move, but both prepped and primed for attack.
I would love for him to see a counselor or for us both to see a couples therapist so we can talk about and process what we have been through over the last few years, but he point-blank refuses. It annoys me, but I have realised this is a dead horse that I cannot keep flogging. I can’t talk given my own resistance to accept and stick with the help offered to me
At times, I agonise over whether we want the same things long-term any more, partly because I don’t really know if there will genuinely be a long-term now or if that could be snatched away. He says I’m overthinking it, which I find annoying, because yeah, of course, I am, I can’t help it – but I think most people who have stared down the barrel of diagnosis, have this same tendency for occasional over-thought! And whilst I love him deeply, his natural procrastination, cautiousness, and resistance to doing new or spontaneous things, which used to mildly irritate me, now drives me mental given the fleeting nature of this thing called life.
I feel that in many ways, my life should be sparklier, more vibrant, a life lived in HD now that I have had this brush with my own mortality, but of course, it can’t always be like that. Someone still needs to do the food shopping, put the washing on, clean the bathroom. For me, these mundane aspects of my life leave me underwhelmed, frustrated, and my poor husband takes the blame for that too.
Moving goal posts
I know this is me – I’m the one who changed the game-plan, who wants and values things differently now. In many ways and on many levels, I’m a different person now, and I’m the one who is rejecting so many aspects of our previous life together. Not him, but I imagine from his perspective it may be hard to tell the difference.
I want to focus on doing fun stuff, I want to travel, I want to experience everything. My career doesn’t mean what it did to me previously, I don’t want to work full-time anymore, and this impacts our finances and lifestyle – making the fun stuff even more challenging to find. I have all sorts of new values around diet, the chemicals in our home, our responsibility to the environment and he is being affected by it all. He’s woken up with a hippy in his bed, and an angry one at that!
Cancer has made me less tolerant, less forgiving, more inclined to call out bullshit, and angrier generally because I don’t have the time, energy, headspace or inclination to put up with it. I can’t tell if I’m angry at the world because I’m angry at the unfairness of cancer (why me syndrome) or because my subconscious brain figures life is too short to put up with stuff that annoys or upsets you, or simply because when I triggered my fight or flight response during treatment, it left me with the “fight” in my system dangerously close to the surface.
He should leave me, I’m often terrified that he will, yet he sticks around, he puts up with all of this shit. I guess because for all his faults, and all of mine, he really does love me – either that or leaving requires too much effort (did I mention his resistance to change?)
Will we survive cancer?
Many relationships don’t survive the process of cancer treatment, I think the whole situation puts a spotlight on all the cracks & fissures of a relationship – some couples find the whole situation bonding and strengthening, others find the cracks get a little deeper, often past the breaking point.
For us, and maybe this is a reflection of how our whole relationship has always worked – It has always been one of contrasts and extremes, cancer has left us both stronger, and weaker too. We have a fair amount of cracks but we also have some fundamentally strong foundations. We are like a japanese kintsugi bowl – we have healed some old issues we had pre-cancer whilst also discovering some new ones along the way too.
So we are muddling through, as best we can, on our own. He is drinking far less, I am trying hard to be less of a bitch. We are trying to talk more. Some days we succeed, some days we fail. We keep trying. This is progress. This is how we will make it through.
Our relationship is transitioning and changing, as we are transitioning and changing as individuals ourselves. And no one ever said change was ever easy, but we grab hold of the glimmers of hope, the slivers of light at the end of the tunnel.
I know my friends don’t always get it, and I know that I sometimes have a funny way of showing it, with all of my moans, gripes and snipes – you may even have your own doubts having read this post. But you should also know that underneath all that, at my core, he is my rock, my sidekick, my port in a storm, and I love him to bits for it.
I don’t know if we’ll get to be old & grey together – who can guarantee old & grey in a life full of unpredictability. We’ve had a wake-up call that you can’t count on these things – that feeling of comfortable certainty in the future ripped away from us on the day I was diagnosed. But that is the hope, old and grey, and living near a beach in Portugal.
So if you are struggling with your relationship throughout this whole thing, take heart, you are not alone. Just keep swimming, and try to save the fighting for kicking cancers butt, not your partners.
That’s certainly what I am trying to do…
Relationship advice from Macmillan
Relationship Counselling from Relate
The amazing super-powers of coconut oil… Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about how coconut oil is the answer to all your cancer prayers. I’m sure you’ve already had more than enough people telling you all about the wonders of various superfoods in the fight against cancer – this is not one of “those” posts…
When you think of chemotherapy and cancer, one of the defining characteristics is hair loss. For women, our hair is a real defining feature, and a long, glossy mane is generally considered the holy grail in feminine beauty. So the prospect of losing your hair, for many women, can be one of the most traumatic aspects of cancer treatment.
Let’s face it when you think of cancer, one of the first images that springs to mind is one of a bald woman in a headscarf. The hair loss is one of the easiest ways to spot a fellow cancer sufferer, and although this may just be me, since losing my hair, I often find myself eyeing up women with very short hair and thinking “hmmm, I wonder if…” and offering small smiles of solidarity just in case – they probably just chose that hairstyle and think I’m nuts!
However, for me, as someone that had a real problem with the idea of being defined as “ill” or as a “patient” or someone to feel sorry for, this automatic identification was something I felt really uncomfortable with, and when cancer (or more specifically the treatment for cancer) seems to do so much to strip you of your identity, turning you into “that girl with cancer” the hair loss and it’s immediately visible outward sign that something is wrong was the bit I found hardest to take.
My hair loss story
When I was given my treatment plan, I was categorically told that with the type and intensity of my chemo regime, I would definitely lose my
Having tested whether I felt I could cope with the cold cap by sitting with a packet of frozen peas on my head (I lasted less than a minute!) I decided that if I was still going to lose significant amounts of hair, the discomfort wasn’t worth it so instead I would “brave the shave”. Two days before my first chemo session, my best friend and I went wig shopping, had lunch, several glasses of prosecco and then out came the razor. I may never have liked my hair much, always wishing for “different” hair – thicker, curlier, darker, but the idea of seeing my hair drop out, and being so out of control of it all, was something that I absolutely couldn’t bear the thought of.
I wanted to be in control of the process, make it something that was my choice, not a consequence of what I was going through. The day I shaved my hair I felt incredibly empowered and like I could literally take on the world! I was owning my life, bending my situation to my will, and nothing was going to stop me from doing exactly what I wanted with my body, my hair, especially not some stupid lump of rogue cells.
Interestingly, I’ve since had a breast care nurse tell me that in doing it this way, it is possible that mentally I didn’t allow myself to accept what I was going through, and maybe it would have been better to let it fall. Her opinion was that you should wait until it annoys you, and you want to be rid of it, and then shave it off. I have no idea whether this is true or not, or which approach is better, I feel that it is an intensely personal decision about when/if to shave your hair, and only you will know when it is the right time for you.
Whenever you decide to do it, I would recommend being with someone you trust implicitly, who can make you laugh, who will help distract you through the process and who will give you a big hug at the end and tell you that you look beautiful.
Incidentally, for all our worries about losing our hair, having since seen lots of people who have lost their hair through cancer, I would say that there is something about seeing a woman without hair (regardless of age or race) that is incredibly beautiful. Stripping away the hair lets you more clearly see the inner beauty and strength that they hold within – combine that look with a bit of lippy and my goodness, it is the definition of fierce!
What is it like to lose your hair?
About 10 days after my first chemo, even with my “Britney circa 2007” skinhead, the remaining hair on my head started to hurt. It constantly felt the way your hair feels after being kept in a tight ponytail – that weird ache you get when you let your hair down at the end of the day. It was sore and itchy, and I could tell this was where it was starting to fall out. It drove me crazy with how uncomfortable it was, and even though I just had very light stubble, I just wanted it fully gone. I ended up using DIY leg wax strips to take the last remnants off, and the relief was immediate.
My bald head was weird and fasinating – who knew I had so many little scars and bumps – the previously hidden evidence of just how clumsy I am naturally. Lots of people told me I had a good shaped head, apparently something to be grateful for, although I confess this wasn’t top of my gratitude list and I sometimes wonder what they would have said if it turned out I had an awful/weird shaped head… probably the same thing – it’s one of those things you are kind of obliged to tell a bald woman with cancer!
Of course, having got rid of all of my hair, I then went on an obsessive hair-watch for signs of it coming back. What is it they say about women never being happy with their hair??
Some days I was fine with my new look, other days I cried for my lost hair and the fact that I looked weird. My poor husband had no idea which way to go with it all – one minute we could be joking about whether I should dress as
I made sure I took my biotin tablets every day, spent a lot of time hanging with my head upside down to encourage blood flow to my scalp and painstakingly massaged my scalp on a daily basis – initially with coconut oil, and then once I found it, with Watermans hair growth tonic.
I had new dilemmas that had never occurred to me before, and which in the grand scheme of things seem silly on reflection, but at the time gave me major pause for thought – how do you clean a bald scalp? Do you use shampoo on your head when you have no hair or just continue your body wash up over your head? When
My hair started to grow back about 5 weeks after I switched to Paclitaxel, although around the same time my eyelashes and eyebrows waved the white surrender flag and did a major disappearing act on me… which is typical because I was just at the point of congratulating myself on having kept hold of them so long, and starting to hope that maybe I wouldn’t lose them. Just a few weeks after my last chemo, I had definite white blonde peach fuzz all over my head.
Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…
I had not one but three wigs – Scarlett, Melissa
As time went on, I wore my wig less and less, and just 3 months post-chemo I braved baring my ultra-short buzzcut to the world, I would never have dreamed of baring it before then (although I have so much respect for women
Hair loss tips
- Contrary to popular belief, not all chemotherapy regimes will make you lose your hair. Speak to your medical team about how severe the impact will be and go from there. Whilst they can’t say for definite, they will have a very good idea on how harsh chemo will be on your hair.
- However, if you are going to lose your hair, you will lose all of your hair and this means from your entire body! Everywhere, including places, I can guarantee you never considered! This has pros and cons. On the plus side, hair removal is not something you need to worry about for a while and trust me you will never get a bikini wax that comes close to “chemo-smooth” However, on the downside, it turns out that the hair in your nose keeps the snot in, and without it nose drip is a very real problem. Always keep a handkerchief/tissues to hand to avoid public humiliation!
- Even if you have decided to cold-cap, it is worth looking into wigs or hats before you begin chemo as a backup measure. Either way, I would recommend that is worth having something (wig/hat/scarf) sorted before you begin chemo if you can, as the last thing you want to do is drag yourself out shopping if you are feeling ill or feeling like you have to panic buy something due to needing it immediately – better to take your time and find something you really like.
- Your hair does a lot to keep you warm – a snug fitting beanie/nightcap is useful to avoid waking up with a freezing cold head in the middle of the night, it can also be useful to wear overnight if you are cold capping or before you start to lose your hair to avoid the distressing situation of very visible hair loss on the pillow in the morning
- Wigs are often not very comfortable, even when they are good quality – they can be hot and itchy especially on a bald and potentially very sensitive scalp. A soft wig liner will help a lot, but it is also worth getting a slouchy beanie or ultra-comfortable hat that is easy to pop on when you are mooching about at home so you don’t scare the cat or the postman, and you can be comfortable when you are relaxing.
- Apart from keeping you warm, and stopping you from looking like a newborn, the hair on your head, eyebrows and eyelashes are also very handy for keeping sweat and dirt out of your eyes. If it is very hot or if you are working out (yes really!) then you may well need to make use of an old fashioned
handerchieffor “mopping duty”, and eye drops are also a handy thing to carry around in case dust gets in your eyes.
- Wearing mascara can make your eyelashes fall out faster, and is not recommended. If, like me, you are naturally very blonde, getting your eyelashes tinted before you begin chemo can give you at least a month of relatively “normal” looking lashes
Generally microbladingand semi-permanent eyebrow tattoos cannot be done whilst having chemo due to the risk of infection, but can be done beforehand and afterwards(usually about 6 weeks post-chemo). Most reputable salons will ask for a letter from your medical team, but I’ve never heard of anyone being refused this. Whilst not a cheap option, both options work really well, and especially as my eyebrows grew back white blonde (aka invisible!) I am so pleased that I had mine done when I did.
And finally, whilst I know it is distressing to think about losing your hair before you know it, you too will be on hair-watch and seeing those first precious tufts emerge. In the meantime, embrace and own your new looks and experiment with hats, turbans, scarves, and wigs and have a bit of fun with it all – you never know, there may be an old-school turban-bound Hollywood glamourpuss inside you just waiting to be unleashed!
There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imprefection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty
- Plain Slouch Beanie – range of colours£6.99
- Urban Stars Slouch Beanie – 3 Colours£9.99
- Suburban Turban – “Kimmy” Chemo Hat – range of colours£24.00
- Tie-Dye Slouch Beanie – 5 Colours£8.99
- Genevieve Chemo Hat – range of colours available – Suburban Turban£41.00
- Soft Knit Baker Boy Cap – Two Colours£10.99
- Katia Chemo Turban – Suburban Turban£46.00
- Tina Chemo Hat – 3 colours available – Suburban Turban£39.50
- Zip Wear Chemo Hat – range of colours available – Suburban Turban£34.50
- Baker Boy Style Hat with Military Detail – Two Colours£12.99
But can I still do kickboxing whilst having chemotherapy? The BCN nearly fell off her chair with that one, but being able to maintain as much of my regular life (and especially my exercise routine) was massively important to me. And as it turns out, my instincts were right, because in answer to the question “Can I exercise throughout chemo?” the answer is not only yes, yes you can! But also that exercise can be extremely beneficial in helping the chemotherapy to do
Today I’m sharing a recipe from the www.crunchybetty.com website for an absolutely brilliant DIY glass cleaner with zero chemical nasties.
I’ve gotten very into making my own beauty and home-care products – I like it because I know exactly what I am using on my skin and around the home, but understand that when you first get into this stuff or try a new recipe there is always a bit of doubt as to whether it will actually work.
I know the Mrs Hinch brigade are all for using tons of bleach etc but there are so many nasty chemicals in all this stuff that are just awful for the environment and ourselves, and personally I’m all for finding alternatives that reduce the toxic load, yet still clean just as well.
Just to say – this glass cleaner works! I’ve used it on glass, mirrors and even on some glass mosaic tiles in the bathroom that had developed weird black mould in the corner. It is brilliant! Sparkly clean, streak-free, and it just cuts right through the muck – including the weird black stuff. Pros – my mirrors have never been so clear. Cons – I’m not entirely sure how I feel seeing my face in high definition staring back at me in the morning…
What you need
- A spray bottle
- 250ml of very hot water (distilled or filtered is best)
- 1/2 tbs of cornstarch
- 30ml rubbing alcohol (at least 70% isopropyl) – you can get this in most chemists
- 30ml white vinegar
- Optional – a couple of drops of lemon essential oil for extra de-greasing
How to make
Boil your water and then let it cool a little. Add your cornstarch and shake well. Then add the rubbing alcohol and white vinegar, and if you are using, a couple of drops of essential oil. Shake well.
Spray liberally, and wipe with a lint-free cloth or newspaper. It may look slightly smeary whilst still wet, but drys to a beautiful shine.
Make sure you shake before use each time to stop the cornstarch clogging the spray nozzle. This will keep for at least 1 month, due to the preserving properties of alcohol and vinegar, although I’ve been using mine for longer and it is still just as effective.
That’s it – how simple is that, and completely free of nasty chemicals.
PS – the Crunchy Betty site is a treasure trove of home-made goodness, and well worth checking out.
crunchybetty top tip for the day
Instead of using air freshener in your bathroom to get rid of nasty niffs (because who knows what is in that stuff!) keep a little bottle of strong-scented essential oil (eg eucalyptus) next to the loo. Pop a couple of drops in the toilet before you “go” and I promise no-one will ever know what you did… Genius!
The most obvious side effect of radiotherapy (also known as radiation therapy depending on where you live in the world) is the impact on your skin, with radiotherapy burn being very similar to severe sunburn. However, there are natural remedies and ways to protect your skin during radiotherapy.
This is my recipe for a super easy, mega nutritious, absolutely delicious and really filling soup that is suitable for vegans, gluten-free and can be knocked up in less than 30 mins (including prep time) with the hardest part of this being the chopping!
I love this recipe because not only is it really nutritious and filling, it is really easy to make, with very little faff – even for someone like me who is
The lentils and potato in the soup make it filling without being too heavy or stodgy, which is great for sensitive
To top it all off, it can also be made in advance and frozen in individual portions, meaning you have a great option for those days when you have no energy or desire to cook. Simply reheat and enjoy.
The health benefits
This recipe has:
- Red lentils, which are low in calorie, high in iron & folate, and a great source of protein
- Tomatoes, which are antioxidant, and also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K
- Carrots – another good antioxidant with lots of vitamin A, among other nutrients
- Celery – antioxidant, anti-inflammatory,
alkalising, low GI (glycemic index) plus stacks of nutrients including Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, potassium, folate, and dietary fibremaking it good for digestion
- Onion – contains quercetin, an antioxidant that acts as a natural anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory, and is particularly high in Vitamin C making it an effective immune system booster. Also, good for cholesterol, bone health and reportedly has cancer-fighting properties
- Ginger – another anti-inflammatory, it is also brilliant at helping to keep nausea at bay, can help regulate blood sugar, and can help as a natural pain reliever
- Garlic – a nutritional super-hero, garlic has loads of health benefits and has been used medicinally for
hundredof years. It
can boost your immunity, reportedly helps fight cancer, is good at lowering cholesterol and has natural antibiotic properties to name a few.
- Potato – Vitamin C, potassium, Vitamin B6,
fibre, magnesium andyet more antioxidants, plus naturally filling.
- Curry powder – for starters spicy
flavourscan be helpful if you have a weird taste in your mouth from treatment, but curry powder is yet another anti-inflammatory, with antioxidant properties, and can help improve bone health, aid digestion, improve heart health and oh yes, make your food taste good!
Now I have gone through some of the health benefits of these ingredients, and why this easy soup is a nutritional powerhouse, lets get to the recipe…
Suitable for vegans & gluten-free. Can be frozen
Serves 4-6 depending on portion size
- Olive oil in a spray bottle
- 1 onion – finely chopped
- 1 large potato – peeled and diced
- 1 large carrot – peeled and chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic – peeled and crushed
- 2 sticks of celery – chopped
- 2 cm root ginger – peeled and grated
- 600ml vegetable stock
- 125g dried red lentils, rinsed and drained
- 1 tbsp medium curry powder (or to taste)
- 600g passata
- salt & pepper to taste
Spray a large saucepan with the olive oil spray to coat and place over
Add the remaining ingredients, except the seasoning, and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes or until the lentils are cooked. Season to taste and serve.
If you are feeling fancy, pop a bit of coriander on top just before serving as garnish.
I’ve always believed that failing to prepare is preparing to fail… But what do you need when preparing to start chemotherapy? I think I have mentioned in some of my other blog posts about my slight control-freak nature, which combined with a major propensity for shopoholicism, meant this was one of the first questions I asked when confronted with the prospect of chemotherapy treatment.