Being diagnosed with breast cancer is difficult enough without having to add to it the complexities of dealing with varying relationships. It’s not just the one you might readily think about – the love interest, spouse, boyfriend, significant other, etc. These are the most common.
However, there are many other relationships to consider when you are embarking on a journey that centers around a serious illness. And, just like the romantic partner-relationship, the others need to be put into perspective in much the same way. There are questions that should be askedand they vary depending on the type of relationship in which you need clarity.
The Romantic/Intimate Relationship
Here are four questions you should ask yourself after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis:
- Is the relationship I am currently in good for me?
- Is my partner understanding/sensitive enough?
- Can I allow my partner to be a part of my healing process?
- Is my partner willing to be a part of my healing process?
Notwithstanding the above questions, the question of intimacy going forward will be in the back of your mind with regard to its quality. In the event physical alterations have to be made to your body, will your mate be capable of adjusting to the changes?
If the answers to the other questions are in the affirmative, then you will probably have as positive an experience with breast cancer as you can in an intimate, romantic relationship. Your mate will probably be patient, caring and will go out of their way to ensure that you are comfortable, that you have everything you need and if you don’t they will move heaven and earth to fulfill your needs to your full and complete satisfaction.
Partner and Advocate
As a breast survivor, I can’t say that my own personal experience was perfect – but I’d say it came pretty close. My significant other was fairly thoughtful, patient and caring. The fact that professionally he was a management level social worker was a positive. Social workers are trained counselors and they have experience listening to others, posing appropriate questions as necessary and giving guidance. This is where the importance of having an advocate comes into play.
When you suspect a problem with your breast, you follow-up with a doctor and have the requisite testing, you must put your advocate – your partner or other interested party, on notice. The reason you should tell someone (even though this seems like the most personal of topics -and it’s normal that you would not want to discuss it with anyone initially), is that more than likely you will be called into the office for your test results. If the test (biopsy) shows that your tumor/lump is malignant, you won’t hear anything else. Your doctor will continue talking to you about treatment options and the next step, etc., but to you, he or she may as well be saying wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Because your mind has just left the building and is now riding on West Panic Highway. You’re thinking “Am I going to die?” And that could be the most remote possibility. But you won’t hear the doctor’s continued explanation because you heard “malignant tumor” or “cancer” and have consequently tuned out. That’s where your advocate comes in.
I made this mistake at first by not telling my mate and dealing with it alone for several weeks, not wanting to spoil the celebration for him receiving his college degree. But once the degree was in hand and the party was over, I told him and he was with me at every subsequent appointment.
Your partner becomes your ears – hearing for you. They become your secretary – recording theoptions you have and the steps that the doctor says you must now take. They become your hands and chauffer – driving you home from the appointment because you are in a fog and should not be behind the wheel of a working, moving automobile (I thanked God for traveling mercy). Your partner becomes the proverbial shoulder for you to lean on until you return to the land of the conscious and are ready to face the matter at hand with all the apprehension, anger and power that you can muster. The advocate’s shoulder may be needed for crying on too – but that comes with the experience.
If your partner/advocate does all of the above and is there for you in the most generously supportive way you can think of, then you should definitely want to maintain that relationship. For the moment anyway, it works. This doesn’t mean that it will always be that way but for now, don’t fix what’s not broken.
Now, on the other hand, if your mate is the total opposite – squeamish, doesn’t want to hear about it, refuses to support you, doesn’t have time to go to any appointments with you and tells you, in essence, to “man up” and handle it, or they just can’t take it -- you might need to reconsider this relationship in terms of knowing if it will work for you. If your treatment is going to temporarily alter your appearance and your mate freaks out because you’ve lost your hair, or you’re momentarily too tired to have intercourse, or they pretend you don’t have anything more serious than a cold, then you may need to seek the assistance of another close friend or family member, and put your mate out to pasture. Being critical of you in your time of need is not necessary. Your partner should empathize with you. In some cases the way they do so is to encourage you in a stern way. If that’s their personality then you should understand that they are trying to be helpful and that is indeed their way of working through difficulties. Just keep in mind that true partners are not fair weather friends. Committed relationships are supposed to be strengthened in times of adversity. This would be one of those times.
The same perspectives hold true for relationships involving family members, close friends and even co-workers. If they really care about you and your well-being, they become co-survivors, going through your experience with you but in a slightly different way -- they don’t get the treatment. However, just like you, they are afraid, anxious and apprehensive about “your” future. Thus, it is up to you to take the lead and invite them into your healing process. They don’t know what to say or do, so you must tell them what you need. Don’t hold back. Now is the time for you to be supported -- and they want to do it – to show you that they care.
When I was diagnosed the first person I told was my office manager. Fortunately, she had a friend who was also a breast cancer survivor and she put me in touch with her. I was able to glean a realistic perspective of what I was in for. But more importantly, the office manager encouraged me to take all the time I needed to get well and assured me that my job would be secure while I went through treatment. Since my name isn’t Oprah, my boyfriend’s name wasn’t Stedman -- and I was a single parent, job security was a very real concern for me. (I actually met Stedman later and I just like mentioning this iconic power couple.)
When going through treatment for cancer or similar conditions, physical changes that occur are usually temporary. Once the treatment has been completed, things go back to normal. It takes a little time but the human body is pretty adept at righting itself. It likes to adhere to the original DNA plan of your body’s make-up, it knows when you’ve done something to change it, and it goes to work to fix it back the way it’s supposed to be – to the extent that it can be fixed.
Patience really is a virtue and your mate, family, friends and co-workers must exercise the same patience that you must have. When they do, you’ll all get through this whole traumatic experience intact. It will be a challenge, but you will have done it together and your relationship might even be stronger for it.