It is often difficult to go beyond the thought, that a diagnosis of cancer can go beyond that of the patient who has been diagnosed. After all, it is the patient who is in the race against time to avoid one statistic, death, but become a statistic, survivor. It is the patient who is going to undergo the testing, and the side effects from treatments. It is the patient who is going to deal with the never-ending fear of recurrence.
But the truth is, when a patient has a significant other, whether it be boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, life partner, that person gets thrust into a role that comes as much a shock as the diagnosis of cancer itself, caregiver. Most likely, neither patient or caregiver has any experience about the path they are going to go down. From personal experience, this should not be taken lightly.
Relationships have enough difficulty surviving without constant effort. And when things interfere with relationships on a daily basis, such as money, activities, sex, stress, work, a cancer diagnosis, just as any other illness, can complicate things further, or at the least, create issues.
Non-binding relationships allow the easiest escape, but for those that are married, there is that whole “for better for worse, from church until hearse, sickness and health”, which in spite of my track record (one divorce, one pending), I do believe in.
When I was diagnosed, I was six months away from getting married. I explained to my fiancé, that I knew from that moment on, I was not going to be able to give her the “fairy tale” marriage that she may have always dreamed about. I might not even survive. I offered her the chance to walk out the door, for another chance at happiness. I would not hold anything against her. It was my fault that I would not be able to live up to what I thought she might have wanted.
Let’s face it though, if you have a significant other, who is facing a life-threatening and critical situation, any human being with an empathetic heart is going to do “the right thing” and stand by their partner. No one would want to be labeled an asshole for bailing on someone in their time of direst need. But the truth is, that might be the best option after all. Especially if a person is incapable, not on purpose of course, of meeting the needs, emotional and physical.
My fiancé became my wife. The wedding happened as planned. The honeymoon was altered because financially, and physically I was not going to be up to the physical needs for the plans we had. I had just completed my radiation therapy before the wedding and I was exhausted. Upon return from my honeymoon, I was faced with the news that I would have to undergo chemotherapy.
But through all of my treatments, both radiation and chemo, and during my procedures, she and I never talked about my cancer. In fact, when I finished my treatments, and received the news that I was in remission, she took that as a release, we would no longer have to hear the word “cancer” in the house, and it pretty much was not to be spoken again. And if I did, I was often met with “why can’t you just get over it.” And I tried, but I could not “just get over it.” This laid the foundation for the eventual failure of my first marriage. We could not deal emotionally with the scars we wore from my Hodgkin’s fight, so anything that came along on top of that, money, sex, attention, only made things worse. And when we finally had our first true husband-wife conversation, it was an explosion that neither of us were able to prepare for, and emotionally it was crippling. That was the end of my first marriage.
I do not blame her, not entirely. But I did warn her. I did not have access or knowledge of how difficult dealing with cancer was going to be, like I do today. Looking back, she lacked attention from me. Cancer dominated my life, and when I was done with it, I found out, I was never going to be done with it. But instead of dealing with our issues, and I cannot stress it enough, YOU CANNOT DO IT ON YOUR OWN!, we hid them. Our relationship suffered, and resentment began to build. And it was only a matter of time, until that resentment would come out. I wanted to get help for us, but she did not see the need, until I told her I wanted to file for divorce. And I even patronized her by going to two sessions before I filed, but during those sessions, I heard the same thing that led me to believe there was no chance of getting her to understand how I felt as a cancer survivor. All I heard was blame directed at me.
Over my twenty four years counseling cancer patients and their families, this is all just too common. Pride keeps us from wanting to expose our laundry to any outsider. But the option of “just getting over it” does not work.
I believe you are totally blessed if you have someone in your life who will be completely by your side, not just through the battle, but help with the scars that grow from within. And they do exist. I am a romantic at heart, and I know this can happen. But I cannot stress, please do not underestimate the emotional toll that a cancer diagnosis and journey can take. Be strong enough to admit when you need someone to lean on.