Cancer and Intimacy: How to maintain life in a healthy relationship when you’re not healthy

I contend, against what some might disagree with, that the fundamental rules of the road still apply to relationships even after a cancer diagnosis. Mind you, special circumstances arise like depression for either partner, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the patient, anxiety, survivors guilt (if you’re not stage four), and an inability to partake in sexual activities as you once enjoyed. This is true especially if you’re undergoing treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, and during healing from surgeries.

The endless list of caveats, not excuses, swirls around the bedroom like the static electricity before a storm – it’s invisible but we can all feel its effects. Sex in the time of metastatic breast cancer can leave women feeling awkward, shy, unattractive… In some cases sex can pose a medical danger due to the suppression of the immune system by treatments. The act of intercourse or the insertion of (fill in the blank) can tear a very delicate vaginal lining allowing bacteria to enter the blood stream. I’ll leave it here for you to draw your own logical conclusions.

A host of various challenges beyond physical intimacy can create a hurricane gale force wind of yelling in the living room, too. Not to mention the generally debilitating fatigue and insomnia causing scheduling mishaps. Financial burdens cause cancellations of plans and much needed vacations that must wait, or in some cases never ever come to fruition.

Those two examples, complex and full of emotional heaviness, are just a few in a list of “collateral damages” as Dr. Susan Love refers to all the plights caused by gynecological cancers . But cancer doesn’t have to pull up the roots of a strong relationship, nor does it effect the ability to execute on the basic blocking and tackling of keeping love alive in every couple’s relationship playbook. I keep a laundry list of things in my mind that I know require my attention to protect whatever got us together and keeps us together.

We like to believe cancer changes certain aspects of our personalities, generally for the better. We also must differentiate between chemo brain when applicable, fatigue juxtaposed against raw intelligence, common sense, and kindness. If we were jerks prior to cancer, chances are we are nicer but still jerks after cancer. Irrespective of side effects, cancer probably cannot make you a complete idiot either sans a few IQ points from whole brain radiation, god forbid, either.

For example, there’s no excuse for not keeping the anger and hostility in check in lashing out at your mate. That’s a stupid use of your cancer card. A mate who didn’t ask for the role of caregiver and primary earner, if these weren’t your beloved’s role as it probably became on the day you got handed your cancer card and membership in a club you never wanted to belong in the first place.

I try to live by how I wish to be treated, though god knows it’s not always possible. On the days when I find myself in a bad mood I stow myself away with apologies in advance, or if I’m up for it I vacate the premises for a while. Generally speaking, as was in life before cancer leaving for a spell makes the heart grow fonder and stupid arguments forgiven if you can even recall what the tiff was about in the first place. A short term memory lapse may be indeed be the single upside due to chemo brain when it comes to silly arguments. A nice thought anyway.

Yet, cancer can tear apart even the most stable of relationships. That is prior to diagnosis. In my own case, the C’s depression nearly did us in but I’m not the kind of person to cut and run when the chips are down. And he’s been better for a couple of months now and I’m certain I made the right decision, although it was difficult at times to do the right thing.

Reversal of Fortune

Many people disagreed with my reversal of caregiver duties. I’d been advised he should be taking care of me. I thought long and hard about it and I found a very counterintuitive conclusion: my mind was not on my cancer and by defocusing my energy from thinking about my own illness, I didn’t succumb to self pity. The pity party never got started, and as we do not know how long I had cancer before my stage four diagnosis, it’s been at least six years very likely I’ve been walking around with breast cancer.

Prior to four years ago, the C had a very high stress job at the worlds most prestigious and popular company as a senior scientist. For 10 years I played a key role in keeping him and my stepsons healthy and happy while holding my own in a career that ended the day cancer began. He’s still supporting me with a home, an automobile, money when I absolutely need it, etc., and for lack of some of those kinds of stressors I’m very, very lucky. And I know it, and now that the big D (depression) has ended he doesn’t ever think to bring this up as a point of contention. During the big D, C resented me having to rely on him. For now, we are past the big D, and we are getting along better than ever. With caution and the proper medications, that is.

Ilene’s golden rules of a peaceful relationship

The following comprise a list of free, no-cost high value things you can do to strengthen your relationship at a time when many fall apart for various reasons and whose fault can be either person.

So try as I can, I:
Forget it
Forgive it
Hug and kiss
Be a best friend
Hug some more

The Underminers

One little bit of smack talk is treacherous to a marriage. One little bit of love right now – even a knowing look of “it’s me, don’t worry I got you,” will play in Peoria every night. There’s some very basic things my 53+ years have provided me through experiences in my understanding of men, helping me find a peaceful way to travel from Venus to greet my martian and meet him half way.

A few good general lessons make sense whether cancer invaded or not:
Don’t ask “what are you thinking sweetheart.” He’s not thinking about anything. Really.
Change yourself, not him. Help him be a better him, with augmentations like a shirt he’d buy himself. If he needs you to help out, he will ask what to do eventually.
Those two round things in a bag in his pants are his to enjoy . Let him keep them. He has to protect them to protect you and that’s his job because we aren’t that evolved as a species yet.
This keeps me out of the cool feminist refrigerator but I couldn’t care less.
You do look fat in that dress/ skirt/ shorts/ jeans so don’t ask him to take the beating for it.
If you don’t have your own interests get cracking or crafting and pursue them outside of one another and outside of work. Life’s not dull, the same memories replayed and infinitum, are.
Privacy is an indelible right for anyone so do not go through anything of his ever. Never ever. Not a cell phone, not email, not the glove box of his car.
If you don’t leave for that place you intended to chances are you probably,y never will, either. Fun must become part of your routine both together and apart.

We will survive

Without the few aforementioned best practices, a couple won’t develop the foundations for a future and for love to find a higher ground above any kind if illness. You can call me a romantic because I am. And I brought breakfast in bed to him 90% of the days we’ve been together. I also follow my own advice. I didn’t fail, but yet for a marriage go on while starving it of love one may lose their life as well from the stress level brought on by a breakup. Know that to go on whatever path or direction your lives may take together, remember to be BFFs first because everything else will follow in the footsteps of your good choices…

The forest of cancer and the trees of love
… even in the wildest winds there will be one last twisting deciduous leaf on a fragile white fir branch way in the back of the shallow foothills. If it’s alive you’ll find it. The leaf reminds us in the forest there’s a tree with hope of life clinging to it as we must cling to one another even in the harshest storms. As the tree seems reborn in the springtime, love can withstand wintertime, too.

Almost half of people diagnosed with cancer find it hard to ask for help, as many fear being pitied | Cancer Research UK

According to new research published by Race for Life today, nearly half (47%) of people diagnosed with cancer said they found it hard to ask for help.
— Read on

Canceled for Cancer

She won’t come down for supper tonight
(exhustion to the bone she aplogizes.)
Bring down your belligerent hammer
Shattering my head. Go down,
Smiles arrive with the company.
Folders holding their paper thin whispers
Presenting cakes in eggshell boxes
Handled and tied with candy cane twine.
Bakery buttercream surrounding vanilla sponges,
On doilies that leave a snowy trail and cling to your
Raggedy robe, sash untied and waving goodnight.

The hours slipped out with my hair
From the knot in my head
And the last door latch sounds
Finally. I meet you by the blue skipping
Light where you hand me some sugary flowers
With a clear plastic fork and a used
Occasional napkin.

Choking on a gilded fist I spit
Resistance onto the rosewood floor.
Shoulders slump and roll over my concave chest.
Tired as a rag doll dressed in raw burlap,
Eyes of simple plastic moon glow buttons
Centered on canvas, threaded with red vein thread.
The torn head bows, stitched over and over
Exhausted by breath excused for the whispers
“How does she do it? What does it look like?”

Talk of cures and tinctures and dragons tails.
I can still hear you slapping your thigh,
Distant laughing, over-sold stories.
Hysterical scorn defers to look at me,
Your cheek down on my lap I stand up
Leaving your face on the old gold sofa
Its brocade brambles emboss your cheek.
My slippers slap the stairs
Punishing the boards like a mother’s hand.
Upstairs the bedroom mirror stares back
I laugh along with her reflection —
My face looks uncooked and raw
Like a boxed frozen pie.

Honestly Blogging: exposing our true selves intimately and deeply

I love certain blogs and posts most likely because I agree with the author or the point of view on a given topic. Human nature forces the mind migrate towards those who have similar views to our own. Naturally. But why do we expose ourselves so intimately on topics that affect our lives so broadly with such a dangerously wide audience, not only those who agree with and similarly like our writing styles?

Writing a personal blog provided me with something soul cleansing. I feel better when my honest words spill out onto the virtual page instead of, or sometimes along with, my tears. Isn’t “honesty” not the objective but the catalyst?

There’s no one who cannot see through you like a plate-glass window if the writing presented is disingenuous or trite. I get complimented on my honest no b.s. style, with regards to my primarily cancer-related blog posts. By divulging other corners of my emotional life along with cancer’s affects on my body and my spirit the therapeutic benefits become self-evident. This includes the sticky issues around how my husband’s depression effects me and our relationship. My blog also allows me tackle all kinds of issues through my poetry.

I’d not feel genuine nor as though I were presenting my life with authenticity if I don’t present the three-dimensional view of Ilene. So I publish it all – ugly, funny, beautiful, strange. 

Why a blog instead of social media?

Publishing my innermost feelings on a platform such as Facebook opens up a big can of worms that won’t get back inside without much squirming – kind of like those surprise spring snakes in a can labeled Peanut Brittle. Frightening and not very humorous. If a friend or relative chooses to read my blog posts they have to actually make an effort to leave Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or LinkedIn, or… I provide a link on those pages to let those who want to know I’ve published a new post.

A closer look at the kinds of posts on social sites and the reactions they illicit, pushes me to take what I believe is the right approach for my purposes in the virtual world. Getting what I need and giving back what’s needed by others on specific sites primary purpose for taking a deeper look at what the right content – and at what comfort level I derive from each.

For instance: participation in peer closed cancer groups on Facebook; short messages on Twitter for communicating to the wider metastatic breast cancer community; and marketing to a wide general audience through more visually engaging platforms like Instagram and Pinterest for my vintage Etsy business and for my blog. 

“Tell me about your mother, yah?”

Writing is therapy – and not everyone wants to know what lights up the CT scan from deep within. And there are many who need to know there’s another person who has been through a similar experience so they don’t feel so alone with their malady. They find our blogs eventually and on their own terms. That’s one reason to keep writing – it’s not cowardly or hiding out cowering from feeling vulnerable in a dark corner of the web at all. It’s rather brave to spill your guts in the midst of history’s most public forum of all – the internet. Our blogs can be read by a hugely wide audience including people we’d prefer not have access to our fears and our pain. 

The recursive act of throwing ourselves out there without any reason to believe someone will or will never read our stories leads us down an unknown path without a map or a compass. We jump off into a great unknown and hope for the best.

Why am I telling you all this?

I read a wonderful blog post on Fractured Faith – What have you written about today? My comment on the well written and thoughtful post (equally well written and thoughtful as the rest of the blog posts) sparked a lot of thought. Specifically thoughts about why all this gut spilling and what purpose it serves me and those who slouch towards my posts?

Additionally, I sat down to reply thoughtfully to a heartfelt comment on a prior post. The comment’s author emphasized feeling connected to another human being who also happens to be a cancer patient. Since I do strive to bleed on the page without prejudice and with no b.s., a feeling of interconnectedness sparks at the moment when my words meet a like mind or a like person with similar experiences.

That’s the point (to me anyway.) A blog can create a bond between minds, no longer strangers to one another. And that’s where the gift of writing comes back to pay dividends. The value of those bonds doubles upon knowing your words met someone during their time of need – or they wouldn’t have sought out someone or something to connect with – and therefore it’s not my right to keep it all to myself.

It’s my privilege to pay forward to others who found me in the vastness of the internet’s expansive universe of people just like you and just like me. And we gravitate towards each other here, don’t we?