Hard On The Body, Hard On The Soul

By Kelly D.

Kelly D. (a pseudonym) shares the difficulties breast cancer and treatment can create in a loving, long-term relationship.

I don’t imagine anyone would say that looking after someone with breast cancer was easy. But in my case, my partner’s diagnosis took our relationship into a realm of no return.

Joanne took her diagnosis particularly badly – she was immediately distraught and thought she faced imminent death. Having had some part in looking after my father, brother, and a close friend after their different cancer diagnoses, I knew breast cancer and its treatment could be a long-term ordeal. I also knew that she was scared about having treatment and that there was an emotional and psychological toll from this diagnosis. Whilst I tried to be supportive, tensions between us mounted. I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, as her breast cancer affected our whole relationship.

Pain: A Constant Feature Of My Partner’s Breast Cancer Treatment

Initially it was pain from the surgery, then from the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and then from treatment-induced menopause that caused searing joint pains. It was hard watching her repeated, stoic, denial of the pain. She would endure it in an increasingly grumpy way, and then snap in fury, swiftly followed by exhaustion and despair.

Many times we would be in some obscure place – on a country walk, in a restaurant, at the cinema – when the pain would strike. Joanne never learned how to manage it, so I started to carry a variety of painkillers wherever we went. Even so, she mostly rejected the drugs out of hand. She thought she could cope. But then it would spiral into the trauma of intolerable pain and we’d have to rush home anyway. She’d be in a fury with everyone, but especially me. I became so exhausted with the stress that we stopped going out much. And socializing separately was equally unsuccessful. I worried about how she would be in my absence given that I’d frequently come home to find her in deep distress.

Dramatic menopause symptoms from the treatment also meant chronic disturbed sleep. Every night, our double quilt would be thrown over to my side of the bed during a hot flash. I’d wake up boiling hot. Then 10 or 15 minutes later, in a shivering and dozy state, Joanne would pull the entire quilt off of me and I’d get freezing cold. Sometimes this quilt tug-of-war repeated every hour and I wouldn’t get any sleep at all. This was no good for staying alert the next day at my full time job, so I proposed that we used single quilts. This helped, but not enough. We had quilts falling off the bed throughout the night. I finally suggested that we sleep in different rooms sometimes – which seemed to work practically for both of us even though I always ended up on the sofa. Looking back, sleeping apart symbolized our strained relationship.

The hardest things for me to deal with as a caregiver and supportive partner were the anger and depression.

ManHandsInRain copyJoanne went from banging her head against the wall in the middle of the night to losing her temper throughout the day. This erratic anger could erupt over anything, and it continued for months and into years, getting worse when she was diagnosed with secondary cancer in her bones and had to retire from her job on ill-health grounds. She became intolerant of almost anything I did, so I was constantly running interference, trying to keep the peace, moderating unreasonable demands, deflecting anger, doing whatever I could to avoid being shouted at. It was like walking on eggshells. For some reason, mealtimes became our tensest battles. We started to eat separately – another sign of our deteriorating relationship.

When Joanne’s anger turned inward and she became deeply miserable, there was little I could do. She would be despondent for hours, days on end, refusing to see friends or go out. We became hermits. She even asked me to lie about how she was doing. Her friends would become irritated with me because they only saw Joanne when she was wearing her ‘brave face.’ To them she appeared to be fine, but I saw the other side.

Eventually I persuaded Joanne to talk to a general practitioner who gently diagnosed her depression and suggested that she take part in therapy. Unfortunately, Joanne didn’t see how talking would help. She agreed, but railed against the process. She made each discussion theoretical rather than something she could use. Eventually they stopped her therapy – she never understood why. Meanwhile, I got some therapeutic support for myself, a safety valve where I could talk out our issues. I found this helpful, much to Joanne’s irritation.

When Joanne’s depression got no better, her practitioner prescribed anti-depressants. She eventually took them, and they seemed to take the edge off of both her depression and her anger. After more than 5 years since her initial diagnosis, there were finally times when our life returned to some sort of an even keel. For a couple of years, I started to relax a little, even enjoy our time together. We even had fun sometimes and went on a few short holidays, some of which were pretty good. Some of them were not so good, though, especially when she forgot to bring her medication.

Joanne didn’t like some of the side effects of the anti-depressants. She said they made her feel distanced from what was going on. I think she chose to forget to take them sometimes because she wanted to feel her experiences again more fully. After 2 years, she stopped taking them altogether and her emotional reactions returned, seemingly with a vengeance. At this point I could no longer manage her outbursts with the strategies I’d used before. I had no patience left.

Desperately struggling to balance work and home life, I finally told Joanne – as gently as I could – that she was much harder to live with when she was not taking anti-depressants. She promptly said we should stop living together.

Separating was clearly something Joanne had been thinking about, but I was stunned. I couldn’t think of anything else to say other than to agree. We immediately started living in the house separately, in a tense but practical stand off. There was no discussion about anything else that could be done. She made her decision. She wanted to move it forward. So we started the formal process of our separation.

We started preparations to sell the house. I started to buy a small flat, and Joanne decided to rent a flat locally. She never discussed why or what sort of relationship she wanted to have with me, but the fact that she chose to rent led me to believe that this would be a temporary arrangement. Her friends rallied around her and helped her move, and she accepted their support.

Just as contracts were about to be exchanged on the house and my flat, I too was diagnosed with cancer.

I was blind-sided. Focused entirely on what needed to be done to move out of the house, I had no time to think about my diagnosis or treatment. At one point Joanne offered to defer the sale of our house and stay and look after me through my treatment. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with her moods when I was unwell. With my experience, I was pretty sure I would do better with my treatment and side effects if I were on my own. My surgery took place a few days after I moved, while my flat was still in a state of chaos. Luckily, one of my colleagues from work took a day’s leave to construct a bed for me for when I returned home.

Joanne, still lost in her own world, barely saw me at all. One day she phoned to complain to me that I still wasn’t supporting her enough. After a few difficult discussions, she hasn’t spoken to me since.
Meanwhile I’ve experienced my own roller coaster of cancer diagnosis and treatment. And, I was pushed out of professional jobs because of my cancer and have been unemployed for significant periods of time. I’m now doing low-paid contract work. I seem to get enough work to get by. And I’ve become something of a lay expert on pain relief.

Looking back, I can’t imagine any way I could have helped Joanne cope better. She needed to find out how to manage her cancer for herself, by herself. But then so did I. So although we managed our emotions about having cancer very differently, perhaps we also have a lot in common.

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