Many couples split up during an illness – it either strengthens the relationship or breaks it. My mother reminded me of this when I first received the news (just to add to my collection of worries….). It’s a very testing time, and one that I underestimated in terms if its effects on my husband until it was all over…..the treatment that is…
When I first had my cancer diagnosis, my husband was with me in the small clinic in South West France. I was conflicted, as on the one hand this news is a totally isolating experience – you are facing possible death – then on the other hand you have someone there next to you who loves you, and will do anything for you. You owe it to them to get better and come through this. It is also a disease, which requires you to be pretty selfish – in a good way – you need to reassess your life, your habits, and make the necessary changes to ensure your well-being. My husband had no choice to go along with everything I imposed – only healthy foods, very little sex (!) and constant trips to the hospital. The balance in the relationship suddenly shifts – it’s all about you and getting better. My poor husband didn’t get a look in.
I knew he felt pretty helpless, we talked about it. He was watching me go through this horrible crisis, and he wanted to do all that he could to support me, but for much of the time I was lost in my own thoughts, or just trying to deal with the day to day realities of chemo and radiotherapy. My husband would make sure I was warm, make meals for me if I was too unwell, and manage my friends and family, with regular updates of my progress by phone/email/WhatsApp. Particularly at the beginning I found it too stressful to speak to my close family members, even my own mother, as I knew the pain she was in hearing this news. My husband was the one to break the news to everyone, at a time when he probably wanted to just curl up in a ball, he was always being the strong one for the two of us. In addition to the emotional stress, there was the added complication of being in another country, and trying to get our heads around the French administration system. He managed all of this side for me which was a huge relief, but an added burden for him.
The process was a mystery to the both of us, so even though we had a vague idea of what the side effects of post surgery, chemo and radiotherapy were, the reality was always a surprise. Our day to day life fell into a routine of caring for me when I was too weak to do anything for myself, interspersed with visits from friends and family. This was the only respite he had from the daily grind. It wasn’t so much the physical strain caring for someone else, but the mental one. What if I didn’t get better?
Everything came to the surface just at the moment I started to feel better. My husband was still in caring mode, and couldn’t judge how I was feeling and was used to me being ‘the ill one’. It was at this time that his mental and physical reserves hit rock bottom ‘I’m just running on empty’, he would say to me. I then started to receive messages from friends and family asking whether he was okay – they were clearly seeing things I wasn’t. Finally, when his adult children came to stay, it came to a head. He was stressed, and had a short fuse, and was upset when speaking to other people. Something had to give.
What was strange was that I knew I couldn’t help him. His distress was about me, and he needed to talk to someone other than me, which in a relationship when you’re used to sharing your feelings, is a strange position to be in. Eventually we found a therapist to speak to, after a bit of cajoling from me and his children. It seems to help. Sometimes people just need to off-load. The experience has been very trying for both of us, but thankfully it’s brought us even closer together.