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How cancer can take its toll on relationships – and how to move forward

By Vanessa Fox,

cancer and relationships image

Having battled with breast cancer and divorce in the same year, I understand from personal experience how the stress and anxiety of a diagnosis can take its toll on the most robust relationship. As more women survive the disease, there is likewise a greater recognition of how it impacts on couples’ lives and partnerships – both during and after treatment.

The stress and anxiety of cancer will be a turning point for many marriages – especially those that were already under strain pre-illness and not best positioned to withstand the disruption that its treatment and management will cause.

The unwelcome seismic life event and the daily emotions, challenges and decisions it forces couples, especially those with children, to face, will severely test any relationship. It can also change the dynamics of parents’ relationships with their children who, depending upon their ages and personalities – will react to it in very different ways.

Breast cancer often demands intensive treatment, including chemotherapy which can disrupt routines, work life and family incomes. These long-term medical therapies can also trigger menopause that often leads to a loss of libido.This situation can be further exacerbated when women who have undergone reconstructive surgery lose confidence in their bodies – which can in turn prompt distancing from their partner, family and friends – piling additional strain on the relationship.

Accepting post surgery body

Similarly, some partners find their spouse’s mastectomy a problem and have great difficulty accepting their new, post-surgery body.

Despite the inescapable difficulties cancer brings, many couples find that their marriages are strengthened by it. They are philosophical; taking the view that if it affects both partners then it is ‘our problem’ – and that talking about it and facing the battle together brings them closer.

A feeling of being ‘in it together’ will help keep each other going when they are particularly down or stressed – and the solution is often to do things as a couple again such as watching television together, eating out, walking or listening to music.

In particular, those with stronger bonds will typically attend medical appointments and treatment sessions together.

There is also help and support available from cancer support groups, such as Breast Cancer Care. The nationwide charity offers supportive counselling and information on relationship advice; practical matters; reconstructions, surgery and aftercare; screening and lifelong health – as well as discussion forums and introductions to those who have undergone the traumatic experience.

New turns can mean new lives

Another crucial thing to bear in mind is that if the relationship does not survive cancer treatment, this may be a constructive outcome. Nobody likes change being thrust upon them, but new turns can mean new lives – particularly for a cancer survivor moving forward with the after-effects of treatment.

In my own case, the end of my marriage was ultimately a positive experience, closing one chapter in my life and starting a new one. The situation made me feel liberated as I realised that I was strong enough to overcome both the relationship’s demise and my illness – and new doors were opened and new adventures embarked upon.

Vanessa Fox

Vanessa Fox

Vanessa Fox is  partner and head of family law, hlw Keeble Hawson

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