A Partner's Side To Cancer
Just eight months after my partner and I exchanged wedding vows she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. That has meant the "in sickness" portion of the commitment has been put to the test more than the "in health" side. Worse, "Til death do us part" is always lurking in the shadows.
While a lot of my energy has gone into supporting Tara through this ordeal, often her concern is directed at me. Caring for someone going through cancer treatment can be almost as tough as going through the treatment yourself. And, while everyone is quick to ask how the patient is doing, relief for someone's partner is rarely the first thing people think about.
After walking this ugly catwalk for almost seven years, and speaking with other husbands and wives of cancer fighters about what they're going through, I've learned a few things to help make it easier. This post is a chance to share that knowledge and hopefully shine some light on a lesser talked about side of cancer. Here are a few things to remember in no particular order.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE IN YOUR WEIRD THOUGHTS
I don't want to be a single parent. How will I cope? How long should I wait until I put up my Tinder profile?
You'll think a lot of strange, horrific, and sometimes funny things when faced with the potential death of a loved one. Anytime I'm left with our boys for the day I think to myself just how much it would suck a rotten mango to help them grow up on my own. It's normal to feel like that. Sometimes I find myself wondering what it would be like to start dating again, and whether I'll still be attractive enough to get attention from the female sex. That's a normal thing to think. Immediately after that, I feel guilty about thinking about dating again, or even contemplating Tara dying since she's well and truly alive and fighting hard to stay that way. That's a normal thing to feel. I sometimes fantasise about living in an all-boy house where we can leave the toilet seat up without fear of reprisal. That's normal too, maybe. All of those silly, dark, absurd and even sometimes happy things you think and feel are normal. Don't feel like you're alone, or are going cracked in the coconut because sometimes your thoughts get ahead of you. If they're really bugging you, seek out someone to talk about it, whether that's with your partner, friends, or a counsellor.
SCHEDULE TIME TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOU
This is a massive one. The amount of stress that piles up during times like this needs to be released somewhere. You have the choice of it coming out via a breakdown in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket, because there are no ripe avocados, or in a soul-cleansing surf in the ocean. It doesn't matter what your unwinding activity of choice is; it could be drinks with the boys or girls, shopping, playing sport, who cares. The point is to step away from the routine of looking after your partner and/or kids for a short time and simply enjoy living. A couple of 'fun' hours a week will see you through all of those longer, harder ones. I promise.
ACCEPT HELP FROM OTHERS
At first my big fat ego was like "nah, I got this", and I was trying to avoid asking for support from family and friends. And then I said to myself, "Tim, stop being a dick. People want to help you. It helps them feel better and gives them a sense of control too. Do those people, and yourself, a favour and accept their help already." Insert your name into the above and say it out loud if you have to. Even if it's just letting someone babysit the kids for a few hours while you get out of the house, or allowing a few meals to be cooked for you here and there. It all takes the pressure off and people will see how grateful you are, even it you can't express it properly.
TAKE MATTERS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS WHEN IT COMES TO SEX
While Tara's libido was mostly in tatters during her treatment, mine was alive and well. It sucks. Knowing how sick your partner is feeling makes you feel like a grade-A creep even thinking about propositioning them for a romp in the sheets. Rather than burst a gasket, or get itchy feet and look beyond our relationship for relief, I simply took matters into my own hands... literally. Masturbating quickly and efficiently might be about as satisfying as eating a piece of dry toast for dinner, but I'd rather be a wanker than a cheater any day of the week. There I said it. If you're really struggling, talk to your partner about it too. He or she might be feeling the same way and not want to bring it up, because 'sex' seems like the last thing either of you should be worrying about. But, it matters, so don't just try to ignore it.
BE WILLING TO HAVE UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS
Following on from the above, there are plenty of other awkward things you should be talking about together. Making arrangements for both of your wills should be the main priority. Knowing what each of you would do if the other was on life support is another. What do you want out of a funeral? What kind of pain medication will, or won't you take? The list is long. Be willing to allow your partner to discuss things they're worrying about too. Tara has openly talked with about me moving on if the worst were to happen. I didn't want to hear it, but we had a chat about it in the end. The verdict - She's not dying. Ever. Especially not before me. Seriously, though, the 'moving on' issue is more common that you think. Here's an example of one journalist suffering from cancer who wrote an open letter in the New York Times, urging prospective new partners to marry her husband. The point is, don't let things you care about, or should be talking about, stay silent in your minds. Put them out on the table and you'll both feel better for it.
BE POSITIVE. IT MATTERS.
A lot of what I've written above makes it sound like the entire last year and a half of treatment has been all doom and gloom. In truth, we've still managed lots of beautiful moments together with our family and friends. None of that is possible if you're not keeping your chin up and maintaining a positive outlook. Staying positive rubs off on each other as well. If one of you is down the other one can be there to pick things up. In general, it makes for a much, much happier household. There is also plenty of evidence out there that shows how positivity can be beneficial to you health. If there's ever a time when your body, mind and soul need that extra kick, now is it. It can be hard, for sure. But when you catch yourself having a whinge, stop, reset and try to find something worth smiling about instead.
CRY IF YOU WANT TO
On the flip side of being positive every single moment of the day, sometimes you just need to let things out and have a good old-fashioned cry. I know that men aren't supposed to let their emotions show, and, a lot of the time I try to hold it together during especially hard moments for Tara, so she has a steady rock to hold onto. But, those little ducts in the corner of your eye sockets are there for a reason. A bit of salty discharge isn't the only thing they let out. They also release grief, hurt, anger and sorrow. Let those little badboys do their job once in a while and everything will feel much lighter. The other weird thing is that Tara reckons she often feels better when she sees me cry, because it makes her feel normal for tearing up all the time. So, be normal. Be a crier.
TREAT THEM LIKE A PARTNER, NOT A PATIENT
At first I thought Tara was being weird, not wanting to be looked after all the time. If I get so much as a sore throat, I want to be bundled into bed, brought cups of tea and be given foot rubs every hour on the hour. But, she didn't like everything being done for her and me taking care of all of the details. I thought I was doing the right thing, letting her concentrate on healing instead of the mundane day-to-day chores of making the household work. But, she just wanted to be Tara. Not Tara 'the cancer patient'. As time went on, we made sure she was doing all of the usual things she normally does. Empowering her to be independent, to work and take care of herself (and me and the kids when it was needed) really helped with her self-confidence and general wellbeing. Tara hears it from other cancer fighters all the time too, "why can't they just let me be me!". Sure, give them the special treatment when it's needed. But, by and large remove the cotton wool and let them live their lives, instead of just trying not to die.
Obviously the above is not an exhaustive list. There are plenty of little and big things you can do every day to make sure you make it through a cancer diagnosis - partner and patient. The main thing to remember is to look after yourself. If you fall sick as well, then there will be no one to hold down the fort. If that means doing things for you, taking a break every now and then, or just being a bit more thoughtful about your approach, then do it.
The darkest nights have the brightest stars and there have been moments during the last seven years that have been pure joy despite (or maybe because of) our situation. Find those stars, cling to them. Cling to each other. Take the time to live. In the end, people and the moments we have together is all that is worth anything.
*I've started a small newsletter for anyone who wants to receive updates and tips like this when it comes to cancer. If you sign up, you'll first receive the Guide To Alternative Cancer Therapy I wrote with Tara, to help steer through that part of this world. Click here to join the list.