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Q&A on relationships

Q: How do we all deal with the guilt of diagnosis and its impact on family and friends? I know it’s not my fault, but I still feel responsible for the outcome and how I deal with the future.

A: Feelings of guilt aren’t uncommon following a life event that has impacted on you and your family, even though you know there’s nobody to blame, it can be difficult to come to terms with the pain a diagnosis causes and the ripple effect of that into the lives of our loved ones. For some people, feeling responsible can be a way to make sense of painful experiences and I wonder if you are usually the person who is ‘strong’ in your family. It’s OK to feel the pain of what has happened to you all and to be sad for it, there’s a reality to that. Often once the painful feelings are expressed it allows for guilt and other negative feelings to reduce. Practice being kind to yourself in the way you would show compassion to someone you love who has had a shocking diagnosis. You deserve the same love.

Q: I find it difficult to talk to my husband about intimacy. I feel so different about my body after treatment. He appears to be understanding, but surely my physical changes and lack of libido must upset him.

A: I can hear how much you are thinking about your husband, it seems you have deep empathy for him and understandably you are considering what this is like for him and in turn for the relationship. Intimacy isn’t just physical; it can be present in our interactions with each other when we make ourselves vulnerable with each other and express our love in other ways. There is a change in your marriage that the relationship may have to accommodate, and some adjustment could be needed between you. For most people, libido does return so it could be a temporary adjustment during which time try to stay close to each other in as many ways as you can. Communication is so important in relationships, and although this could feel like an uncomfortable topic, once you begin talking normally it feels worthwhile.

Q: How do I cope with other people presuming cancer is a death sentence when I needed to believe I would live and hold on to some hope?

A: I think this is an important question for those of us who have had a cancer diagnosis, I am glad you are asking it. It’s also useful insight to share with everyone so that people grow more accustomed at how to respond when they hear about someone’s diagnosis. There is something about the ‘C’ word that carries this sense of being incurable which is a hangover from decades ago when less could be done.  By talking about it this way, people are adding their own fears to yours, albeit probably not deliberately. It’s important for you to find techniques that you find useful which help you keep your thoughts in the present moment, and which allow you to focus on positive outcomes. Some people make contact with survivors and focus on their stories. Others take up CBT techniques with the help of a counsellor. There will likely be moments when you feel afraid, as I’m sure we all do. Create yourself a toolkit of things you can think and do which help you feel more grounded in those moments.

Q: Is it possible to reconnect with friends who couldn’t deal with my diagnosis and treatment at the time?

A: This is, sadly, a very common issue for many of us. It wouldn’t be right to generalise or guess about the reasons each person has for behaving how they do when friends go through cancer treatment, likely it is different and unique to them all. Depending on the strength of the relationship, you may be able to talk openly with a friend about their reaction or their withdrawal from you. With understanding it can be possible to repair, particularly if there is willingness to make amends. With some friends that won’t be possible and then there is a question for you about the value of pursuing that connection. In my experience, it is possible to forgive and repair even without those conversations if you are able to work through any hurt it has caused you yourself. However, papering over cracks tends to be a short-term solution for any issue and you may instead have to consider moving on from some relationships.

Q: My parents just refused to discuss me having cancer. I realise they are from the generation who brushed things under the carpet, but it really hurts me that they seem to be ignoring it. How can I get them to talk?

A: This must be difficult for you; it sounds as though you are looking for comfort and understanding from them whereas seemingly they would rather not discuss your diagnosis at all. If you would like to address it with them, my advice is to be candid but compassionate, ask them why they don’t want to discuss it and consider letting them know why you want them to. In most cases people respond well to this however if, as you suggest, this is how they have always approached difficult topics, they’re faced with the challenge of changing a lifelong way of being, and that is a big ask. While you are attempting to address this with your parents, try reaching out to others for support, perhaps begin with the Mission Remission community.

Q: My son seemed to deal with my cancer diagnosis several years ago when he was sixteen, but I think he buried his true feelings and fears. He now suffers from anxiety, possibly even PTSD. I’m a single mother so if I’d died he would have been alone in life. How could any teenager cope with that? How can I help him now?

A: Let me first give you credit for the compassion and awareness you are showing in your consideration for your son. You and he have been through this awful experience together, including all of the thoughts and feelings which go with it, so as you say it is understandable that you’ve both been impacted. As parents, we want the best for our children but realistically there will be things we simply cannot fix. It can be a real challenge seeing them affected with symptoms like anxiety and feeling somewhat helpless. If you have a good open communication with him, invite him to open up to you about how he experienced your diagnosis at the time, don’t underestimate how soothing it is to be heard and understood.  If you are concerned about PTSD then I would recommend reaching out for psychotherapeutic help from a professional.

Q: My boss was fairly understanding when I had time off for my cancer treatment but is now ignoring the fact that I still suffer from fatigue and is showing very little compassion. How can I get him to understand that symptoms can last forever?

A: Unfortunately, the topic you’ve highlighted is common in work settings and in other areas of our lives. Tackling this type of issue will differ slightly depending on the set up at places of work and the types of policies and people systems available. It would be useful if you could be supported to address this with your boss but if you will be talking to him yourself then I recommend a candid, factual approach with feelings set aside. This often allows people to receive the information, understand it and consider what is needed without any personal dynamics affecting the communication on either side. Be clear about how this impacts the work you do and about any reasonable adjustments you feel can be made. Many people don’t know that cancer is one of three conditions covered by Equality legislation, so it is acceptable to ask for your symptoms to be accommodated.

Q: A friend of mine came to chemotherapy with me and spent the whole time chatting to other people. I still can’t come to terms with her selfishness. We are no longer friends, but I struggle to understand her behaviour. Why are some people like this?

A: Unfortunately, I have heard many similar stories. The theme of being let down by friends, and sometimes family, is a frequent source of hurt when I hear from people who have had cancer treatment. The reasons can vary. Sometimes our friends don’t have enough of their own emotional resilience to empathise sufficiently with us, sometimes they aren’t aware of their own fears and defend against feeling afraid without being consciously aware that’s what they’re doing, sometimes the pain of seeing us unwell is too much for them to bear. It’s not always possible to bring it up with friends when they have caused upset at a time we all need them most, but if you can, and it’s possible to repair, that process can deepen the friendship. Sadly, in some instances we do lose relationships and feel it is in our own best interests to simply move on. I am sorry this happened to you, it is a very painful experience.

Q: My family have been completely absent during and after my treatment. I was told in a message that I  'had got cancer for attention'. No-one offers to help with anything and they make jokes about how I can't do anything myself (I have permanent neuropathy so cannot drive anymore). A close family member also said to me, 'you can't milk this for much longer' during my third cycle of chemotherapy.

A: Thank you for sharing your experience which I imagine has been quite painful and difficult for you. The examples you have shared sound quite shocking. It’s difficult to hypothesise about the reasons why your family might have behaved in this way without knowing them. Sometimes this type of behaviour is an example of what we call ‘gallows humour’ where people aren’t able to deal with their real feelings and instead attempt to make jokes to dispel the tension. I don’t know how your family ordinarily deal with crisis, sometimes families have a way of tackling adversity which can seem callous if they aren’t accustomed to talking about feelings. I’m wary of assuming that they have been deliberately hurtful to you, only you could know that, and if that is the case then perhaps it is better for you to seek support elsewhere at this time. Groups such as Mission Remission are a great source of comfort and I hope you can build connections elsewhere to find the support you need and deserve. I’m sorry that your family weren’t there for you when you needed them, I can imagine how hurtful this has been. I hope you are recovering well and send you good wishes for the future.


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