Cancer and Relationships, From Bedrock to Quicksand
A cancer diagnosis can have an immediate impact on relationships, from the pull-back of friends to the embrace of strangers. And the effects of long-term treatment ultimately reach down every strand in a patient’s web of personal connections from close family members to work associates to even the vaguest of acquaintances. This happens whether the patient is open about his or her cancer journey or prefers to keep details private. There is no way around the fact that living with cancer changes the way a patient interacts with others because it changes the way the patient exists in the world.
Maintaining normalcy isn’t easy
While attempting to keep things “normal” after my diagnosis, I realized that, as a stage IV lung cancer patient, there was no denying the impact that the disease would have on my life. Published survival rates look terrible, there is a definite stigma associated with the condition, and virtually everyone has stories of their own about somebody dying horribly from cancer.
Letting word get around that I had advanced disease was going to invariably scare people away, cause some to get anxious, and maybe even stick me on the receiving end of pity that I never wanted. But considering the medical challenges ahead, I felt it was best to be public about what I was doing and how it was impacting my family. So, for me, part of adjusting my reference to normality was letting people in on what I was going through.
Some relationships change after cancer
As a result, I lost some friends, but I gained others. I have been surprised by some of the people who took a more active role in my life. I have been grateful that as the years have progressed my family has continued to rally in my support. And that has not always been easy. My mother, sister, and brother had all moved with their families to the opposite side of the country well before my diagnosis.
I began blogging about my condition in no small part to keep family members up to date without the pressure of emotional phone calls or the risk of facts getting jumbled as they tried to keep each other informed. With my blog, I could control how the information about me was communicated and keep everyone on the same page. In my mind, as well, I think I saw this as a way to also protect them from worry or fear.
The notion of protecting those I love was prominent in the early phases of my treatment. I saved my own deepest concerns for my oncologist and I joined a support group so that I would have a safe place to talk about any issues. At home, I tried to be clear about my treatments and their physical effects so that my young daughter would understand, while also providing her with a sense of security that what was happening to me was okay, and that I was okay in spite of looking terrible. It did not help that, for quite a long time, I was also taking steroids and sleeping poorly.
New family dynamics
Try as I might to be my best self, cancer treatment turned me into an irritable mess. My wife, with her own life challenges to deal with, suddenly had triple the responsibilities. She had the stress of ensuring family stability: emotionally, fiscally, and sometimes even physically. She was our solid rock, our foundation, and it was completely, resoundingly unfair to her. I am amazed to this day that she was not entirely crushed in both spirit and body.
And my daughter could easily have been alienated by me any number of times. I was lucky to have my wife there as a buffer, just as I was lucky to have a daughter with a strong streak of compassion. Yet I can say cancer definitely changed my relationship with them both. Times have been rocky, some held together by guilt just as others held strong through love. There has been no shortage of resentment felt by each of us, sometimes for overlapping reasons. We have all yelled, we have all cried. We have pushed each other away and we have held each other tight.
Not all relationships withstand new changes
In the end, some bonds are stronger. Some break entirely. A few simply slowly fray and may continue to do so until the slightest breeze blows a once close individual off into the distance, one less strand connected to the web. Relationships, in general, are often difficult and sometimes volatile. Even the best, most stable relationships can be upended, and we cannot always predict why. Adding cancer to the equation can cause fissures where there had been solid rock, it can liquify the ground on which we had staked our love or built friendships that we thought would continue standing strong forever. But it can also give us reasons to strengthen our bonds or create new ones where we had not even looked before.