Post-traumatic stress affects more than just the person with breast cancer. It affects entire families and often, spouses suffer in silence.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve noticed a change in my husband. He’s been naturally more attentive to me, but he’s also become more introspective.
I can’t remember when the change became noticeable, but it must have been after my husband began to transfer out of his caregiving role and into a more supportive role.
We’ve been married for over 24 years and during that time, my husband has always been such a kind and caring man. He’s been very attentive and, at times, even doting on me to the point it’s become frustrating. But I’ve never complained because I considered myself blessed. How many women have that type of husband? I’m sure many would give anything to have a man care so deeply.
But something shifted along the way. My husband was still sensitive to my needs. He always did whatever he could to assist me. He never complained about doing menial things like helping me adjust pillows to get comfortable at night, working to help stretch and slide on my compression sleeves, aiding me when getting dressed or bathing, picking up meals when I was too tired to cook and many other things.
As I was healing, I’d often pay attention to his facial expressions. If I was in pain, he’d often grimace, too, sympathetically sharing my agony. Sometimes, I’d see him, out of the corner of my eye, just staring at me. It was odd behavior and I asked him about it after several weeks. He said he couldn’t help it. He just wanted to look at me. He just wanted to know that I was OK.
Sometimes, at night, I’d hear him weeping. It broke my heart and I knew he was suffering in silence. Realizing he was hurting too, I made a point to talk to him the following day. I asked my husband what was bothering him and at first, he said everything was OK, that nothing was wrong. I knew that wasn’t the truth when I saw tears welling in his eyes. I pressed further and finally, he broke down and, through his sobs, explained he was so afraid he was going to lose me.
My heart broke as I listened. I tried not to interrupt because I knew if I did, he’d close down and I wouldn’t be able to understand how he was feeling.
He continued to talk and as I continued to listen, I was surprised at what I was hearing. This big, strapping man had been struggling with so many emotional issues. He’d been fearful he’d lose me, but also fearful the cancer would return. He’d worried night and day that something was going to happen to me. He’d also been grieving over the loss of my femininity. He told me he’d also experienced some anger. He was upset at all cancer had taken from me and how it had changed my body.
As I’d faced test after test, he’d steeled himself for the results hoping and praying they’d be good. Although he hadn’t been the one to actively experience breast cancer, he’d definitely been negatively affected by it.
I’d talked to the doctor about my own issues with post-traumatic stress months before noticing my husband dealing with the same types of things. My husband’s stress was different but was definitely affecting his life.
Although we could have sought counseling, we didn’t. We chose to discuss it and tried to work things out on our own. Bringing the problem to light was helpful. Acknowledging the fact that we were both experiencing post-traumatic stress has helped us find ways to deal with it.
We tried to make time to talk without any distractions. It was easier to communicate if we were alone and in a quiet setting. As we talked, we made sure each of us knew it was a safe place to share openly about our fears, concerns, how cancer had changed us and the importance of our relationship. Even if one of us talked more than the other, it was important to share. When one of us was doing the talking, the other one was doing the listening. We could bounce things off of one another and that allowed us the opportunity to understand each other. It was also important, as we were talking, to constantly reassure each other.
As more of his feelings came to light, I found out that he’d tried to protect me by keeping his feelings of fear and concern to himself. He didn’t want to give me anything more to worry about. He knew I had enough on my plate.
Talking it out has helped us build a better relationship and a closer bond. We reminded each other of our marriage vows recently and the lines we shared – “…for better or worse, til death do us part.” We know we’re in this for the long haul and nothing, especially cancer, is going to tear us apart.
Breast cancer is certainly stressful! It affects relationships in ways we can’t always comprehend, but good relationships can be made stronger by sharing hardships. I was thankful my husband was willing to share his doubts openly after I’d noticed he was struggling and commented on it.
When he told me he missed the old me, I almost lost it. I missed the old me, too. But right after he shared that, he gave me a big hug and said, “That doesn’t mean I’m going to trade you in for a newer model!” I was glad to hear that!
I can honestly say our marriage is stronger now than ever before. We make time to talk about the difficult things and we don’t try to hide our feelings or emotions from one another as a protective measure.
The post-traumatic stress that follows breast cancer will strike. It doesn’t affect all who suffer cancer in the same way, but it will leave its mark. If you or your loved one are struggling with PTSD, please, take time to get help. Either seek professional help or do like we did and openly share your heart with one another. Healing is a process and often takes a great deal of time, patience, and energy.