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