When Cancer Becomes a Liability in the Relationship

What do you do when cancer begins to drive a wedge between you and your partner? “I always feel it could cause the end of my relationship because I’m too much,” writes one survivor.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had been in a relationship with my boyfriend from college for seven years. I was 25 years old, and he hadn’t popped the question yet.

I like to look at myself as a compassionate empath who feels pain when the one close to me feels pain. I instinctively want to help others, assist and listen. I think it took me a long time to realize my thought process may not be the same reaction or response of others. He was visibly upset when I told him the lump on the sonogram was highly suspicious for cancer, but it wasn’t for the same reasons I was upset.

I remember crying as I blurted out to him that the doctors thought the mass was malignant and then my anguish turned to shock and horror as I watched him grab a knife from the drawer in the kitchen of a home he had just purchased and said something along the lines of, “You know what, maybe I can’t handle all this. Maybe I’ll just stick myself with this knife.” What was happening? Was that normal? I don’t even think I ever understood what normal was since I grew up in a family that was overly dramatic and seemed to think yelling over each other was the only way to handle a situation.

As I made my way to my appointments to map out how I would defeat this disease, my boyfriend sat listening to the surgeon tell me that the best option was to remove my right breast. Since radiation had caused my cancer they could not utilize it to treat the small tumor.

“There’s got to be another way, I don’t think you should let them remove your breast,” he exclaimed. It was becoming very clear to me that he was more concerned with my appearance than my life and more concerned about his own happiness and what he was comfortable with. A woman who only had one breast was a defect to him – a liability. I, of course, chose what I felt was the best option at saving my life and opted for the mastectomy.

As I signed in for a routine sonogram of my remaining left breast months after my initial diagnosis, I was met with a lovely older tech. I lay down on the crinkly paper covering on the exam table as she pushed the cold jelly around on my breast with the ultrasound wand. “I’m a breast cancer survivor too,” she announced. Whenever I would meet a fellow survivor, it was almost like we would have an immediate secret bond and know it was safe to say anything to each other. “You’re young to have to go through all this. I was too. I told my husband I wanted him to get a vasectomy as it would be dangerous if I got pregnant again. He told me he didn’t want to do that because he needed to keep his options open...” I wanted to throw up as I lay on the table. What he had meant was he wanted to make sure that just in case she died he would still be viable to another woman and be able to procreate. I got to thinking, “Who was the real victim here, the patient or the partner?” Were they some kind of martyr for sticking it out with us? That’s exactly how my boyfriend made me feel.

To be fair, I know there are a fair share of partners who are in it through thick and thin. I’ve seen them. I talked to my survivor friends, but they too had an awareness of what their partners were “dealing” with. One of my friends, Lisa, who has since passed, would tell me about the many porn sites she knew her husband went on while she was on treatment and had lost her sex drive. There were others who had their marriages fall apart slowly because the spouse wanted someone who could have children, live without frailty or be a burden. I toggle between feeling for the healthy one who has to support and the one who did not make the choice to get sick.

During one of the last few weeks I spent in the house with my husband who I had made the conscious choice to separate from finally after he shared often to his friends’ things like, “I didn’t sign up for this,” or “at least I get Fridays off because I have to take her to chemo,” we interfaced in the kitchen. After some toxic banter back and forth he hissed, “I wish you would just die already.” Everything I needed to understand about how he felt was summarized in that one profound statement. I had become a burden he wanted to just unload. He died less than two years later drinking and driving.

I still feel guilt (I think many survivors do on different levels) in my relationships. What is too much in the way of talking about my fears and anxiety? I feel badly anytime I have to see another specialist, praying they won’t order a biopsy or scan that I will have to wait through and explain to my partner how nervous I am. I always feel it could cause the end of my relationship because I’m too much. My breast surgeon once said, “It’s going to take a very special man to take care of you properly.” I kind of got defensive when I heard her say that but now that I look back, I think she was attempting to remind me that I WAS special in a good way and not every man was going to be able to see that. Maybe it was a warning from her to not minimize my worth because of the illnesses I went through and to CHOOSE WISELY.

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