Cancer does not only touch our lives. Cancer touches the lives of those closest to us. How to we handle the relationship challenges and losses? Continuing in a series on Life After Cancer.
by Lynne Hartke
“Will you die like Grandma?” my then-sixteen-year-old daughter asked when I told her I had breast cancer.
“One day [my son] saw me struggling to sit up,” Tina wrote about a time after her mastectomy. “I couldn’t hug him due to the pain. He stood against the wall, and I saw fear in his eyes. No child should ever have to fear the appearance of their mother… but there it was…that look of fear. Even as I write this, the tears start welling up.”
Cancer does not only touch our lives. Cancer touches the lives of those closest to us.
I remember calling siblings and friends with the news that I had breast cancer. Within hours the disease spread to affect everyone who knew and loved me. Some relationship challenges I anticipated with the diagnosis, and other relational changes caught me off-guard. Many cancer survivors who I interviewed mentioned the relational changes/losses as the most challenging of their cancer journey.
The relational changes after treatment can be equally challenging, partly because those closest to us assume we are ready to jump back into life as it was before cancer. While we are struggling to figure out how to deal with the shifting of our worlds, they are relieved to finally put the fears they had for us behind them. “You’re tired and vulnerable,” authors Sherri Magee, PH.D. and Kathy Scalzo, M.S.O.D wrote about relationships after treatment, in Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer. “You faced your own mortality; they had to face the thought of losing you. Everyone’s emotions are heightened, and no one is sure what to expect next.”
According to the book, Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer by Glenna Halvorson-Boyd and Lisa K Hunter, “Just as they are breathing sighs of relief, we are emerging from our trauma-induced numbness.”
While many survivors reported that cancer brought them closer to those they loved, most also had a story to share about relationships that were torn apart.
Relationship Challenges/Losses After Cancer
Will The Real Me Please Stand Up!
Cancer comes and stirs up the pot in regard to roles and expectations. During cancer treatment family members and friends arise to take over some of the patient’s responsibilities. But when treatment ends, everyone expects you (and you expect of yourself) to step back into your old roles.
The only problem is we don’t seem to fit back into our old skins.
After I finished my initial rounds of treatment, I felt I could return to the multi-tasker I had been in the past, able to stand in the intersection of our family’s busy lives and direct the traffic of an active household, but I found myself without the energy or concentration to manage the speed of everything coming at me. I also made the decision to step down from a position I had held for 16 years. I found myself struggling to define my priorities, my goals and who I was as a person.
“My greatest loss I feel is in my relationships,” Caroline wrote. “They are not the same. I am different. I struggle with patience and tolerance. My losses have come after treatment and sometimes I feel like the bad side of me is the one that survived.”
Other survivors found that friends and family members wanted to keep them in the box marked “Fragile. Handle with Care,” long past the time they needed that label.
“I was independent since I was 15,” Tina wrote. “For my mother, this was always difficult for her. When I was diagnosed, she thought this was a way to get closer, that I would depend on her more. And I did. For a short time. [When I no longer needed her in that role] she did not know what to do or how to handle it. She viewed it as rejection…or as me being hurtful. She decided to walk away. This was one of the hardest things I had to cope with.”
In Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward after Surviving Cancer, the authors, Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo write that living with life after cancer is “a movement from patient to survivor, from sick to healthy, from survivor to living well. The ultimate goal is wholeness. But … you may find yourself questioning your very identity. It’s as if your former self were still there, waving to you from another time, but you’re not sure you want to wave back.”
Expectations: The Real Tripper-Upper
Often during treatment, expectations from those who have stepped up to the plate to care for us have been stuffed or put aside as they have “been there for us.” Now that we are finished with treatment those feelings can arise, not only from us, but from those who were closest to us, at a time when the exhaustion from the battle of cancer has left everyone without the reserves to take on un-planned-for conflict.
“I did it all,” Kathy wrote in regard to caring for her husband. “I drove him to all the doctor appointments and hospital visits. I woke up at 2 a.m. to give him his medicine. I never complained and never felt resentment. [After treatment] we went from a year of someone needing me to someone who was not around. He was so busy at work that I felt I didn’t exist. It was hard. It was probably one of the darkest times in our marriage.”
The Mirror Everyone Wants to Avoid
As a child I enjoyed going to the fun house at the county fair and looking at the warped mirrors that made me look tall or thin, fat or short. Those mirrors made me laugh. Not so the mortality mirror. The mortality mirror is avoided by most people, as they take short glimpses but hurriedly walk way. Having cancer forces us to gaze into the mirror, and not only us, but those closest to us.
For many of our friends and family, they step forward, even if they don’t always know what to do, and surround us with the love and support we need. People we never expected to be beside us are there. We make new friends during treatment and after treatment. The mirror doesn’t keep them away. Our relationships are strengthened.
Yet, some can’t handle the mirror and are unable to cope with illness and the possibility of death. Almost all the survivors had stories of a few friends or family members that weren’t there for them.
“She was my friend for thirty years,” a friend said. “After I was diagnosed, she just disappeared.”
“Do you think she couldn’t handle losing you,” I asked gently. “So she chose to lose you on her own terms?”
My friend’s eyes widened, “I hadn’t thought of that. I think it’s true.” With this insight, these friends were able to repair what was broken.
But that is not always the case. Others cannot handle the mirror.
“I became a victim to most,” Tina wrote, “and a mirror to others. And all I wanted to be was what I was before: their friend, daughter, niece, cousin.”
So what do you do with damaged relationships?
- Can I Get A Pass On the Human Race?
Having cancer weakened my resiliency for negative people. Posts on Facebook advised me to avoid these people at all costs. Can I be honest? I never found this advice to be helpful. Having cancer doesn’t give you a pass on being part of the human race. Healthy boundaries may need to be drawn, but completely avoiding negative people isn’t possible.
- Extend Grace.
People are awkward. Thoughts of illness and death make people even more awkward. Extend grace. Assume the best in people. Be the friend you want them to be.
- Forgiveness is Real.
People fail us and we fail them. This was true before cancer and it is true during and after cancer. Forgiveness is still real. Offer it. Give it. Ask for it. If you need the strength to fight one more battle, choose this one, with God’s help.
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13 NIV
Forgiveness is not dependent on the other person. Sometimes a relationship cannot be restored. In that case, we can only do our part to make sure our own hearts are clear and move on.
What has been the most challenging for you in regard to relationships since your cancer diagnosis?