As October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought it would be good to take a look at our awareness of how breast cancer affects a partner in a long-term relationship.
Needless to say, it is devastating to find out that your wife or partner has breast cancer – but what are the biggest issues, the best ways to cope, and are there any positives?
I spoke with Dave Balch and John InDelicato, both of whom have supported their wives through long and arduous journeys with breast cancer. They were both keen to stress that one thing that had helped them to cope was to be fully involved in their wife’s treatment, in finding out information, gaining second opinions and being there for each chemotherapy session. This had a huge impact on both their lives. John felt he had put his career on hold as his wife’s health had to come first; a decision which came with financial implications. Dave found it difficult to continue running a home based business, but had to find a way to do that in order to both protect the family income and meet the additional bills that cancer brings. These issues bring with them immense stress, which affects concentration in other areas. “My wife had the chemotherapy, but it was me who had the ‘chemo-brain’,” says Dave, describing the juggling act he performed with his work and managing his wife’s treatment schedule.
The kind of involvement that these men had with helping their wives get well takes an immense amount of time. Other responsibilities must be taken care of, with the help of others. For John this meant balancing his work, caring for his wife, assuming greater caring for his young children, sometimes accepting the help of loving friends and family; for Dave there were the demands of a business, planning his wife’s care and an extensive menagerie of animals needing loving attention. The advantage of this involvement, though, is a deepening of their relationships. Both got to know their wives at a level most of us hope not to have to reach, and they were in awe of the spirit, humour and courage these women displayed.
Breast cancer also brings with it the inevitable issue of sexuality. In a healthy loving relationship, self-image has a large part to play in intimacy. As a woman, I am aware that my breasts affect my image of myself as a sexual being – and so I can imagine how losing those breasts would challenge that self-image. John’s wife Donna had undergone a double mastectomy as a result of her second bout of breast cancer, and been told that her slight frame meant there was no option of reconstruction. As a couple, they felt they had put this behind them, just being grateful for Donna’s survival. There were times, though, when Donna would be distraught at the lack of ‘a bump’ for her clothes to hang from. It was with amazement that they then discovered the option of reconstruction using donated tissue known as Alloderm. There was no question for them as to whether Donna should go ahead with the procedure, and the results have been fantastic. “I feel that I’ve got my whole wife back,” says John, “and I can tell she feels the same from the feisty looks she gives me.” John would encourage other husbands to support their wives in having reconstructive surgery, but not for their own needs. “It’s 90% for the wife, as it allows her to put a full stop on her cancer experience and gives closure.”
One thing that’s for certain is that life after a wife’s breast cancer will never be quite the same again. There will be a ‘new normal’. The quality of this new normal depends on the way the husband coped during the illness, and how well the couple communicated. There can be an immense amount of learning and growth in this journey. John found that he had grown in his ability to deal with and speak about his emotions. Dave felt that the coping skills he developed were so important that he will be sharing them through his soon to be launched Coping University (www.copinguniversity.com), which will support anyone coping with serious illness in themselves or their family. It seems that ‘life is the best teacher’, and many will be able to benefit from the insights he gained.
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