Breast cancer survivors know better than anyone that life shifts into two distinct parts: before and after. You change and so do your relationships, in and out of bed. How could they not?
It’s been said that after a cancer diagnosis, strong relationships become stronger while weak ones become weaker or else totally fall apart. The additional stress of dealing with surgery, treatment, fear, choices, and navigating the medical system now become your focus. Your partner takes a back seat to your cancer, so to speak. As well it should. You’re facing life-altering decisions, after all.
My husband and I had been a couple for 21 years and married for 18 when I was diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive carcinoma and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in my left breast in April 2013. Together, we’d weathered normal, everyday challenges plus the deaths of parents and 9/11—he’s a (very lucky) firefighter who came home that night; many of our friends and neighbors did not. But cancer was a very different challenge.
Peter has always been the rock in our relationship, not warm and fuzzy but strong, solid and dependable. When I worried that I was falling apart after my diagnosis, he very sagely told me: “This is your 9/11. This is the worst thing that ever happened to you. Give yourself permission to go through it.”
I did. We did. Together.
When I think back upon the moment my surgeon uttered those terrible words “You have breast cancer,” Peter looked like someone had smacked him across the face. I can’t even imagine what I looked like. But we survived it. Somehow, we got through it. We found that we were stronger together than we were apart.
Sadly, many relationships crack with the additional strain of cancer thrown into the mix. Now your daily tango isn’t who’ll cook dinner, who’ll do the laundry or who’ll pick up the kids from school. Now it’s how will I get to my next chemo appointment and will I be too fatigued to take a shower and get dressed.
In her blog “Beauty Through the Beast,” SHARE member Chiara D’Agostino recounted that her breast surgeon, Dr. Michele Blackwood, said 50% of couples break up during a cancer diagnosis. Why? Even though “in sickness and in health” are part of most marriage vows, the cold, stark reality of illness can be crippling. Breast cancer is definitely more than a partner signed up for.
A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer found that a married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis. The divorce rate was 21% for seriously-ill women and 3% for seriously-ill men.
Just like people love to tell you cancer horror stories, there are a host of articles about post-cancer breakups in media outlets like the Huffington Post, CNN and Today. Sure, I was concerned that Peter’s and my relationship might suffer after BC, but we tried hard to make sure it didn’t. We faced my diagnosis the way we faced everything: one day at a time and with a sense of humor.
Peter and I always had a strong physical relationship, even after a couple of decades of being a couple. (I mean, what’s the point of being married if you’re not going to have sex!) Especially after my surgery, I still needed to feel like a woman. Even with a surgical drain coming out of my side for three weeks (complicated by a severe infection from the tissue expander, which later had to be removed in emergency surgery) I needed to be intimate. Maybe to prove to myself that I was still desirable. Luckily, my husband was onboard. And with creative drain-tucking, we were successful.
Yet still, when Peter’s hand grazed the flat side of my chest, I cringed. And not from physical pain—from trying to come to terms with my new anatomy.
When I lost all of my hair during chemo, Peter’s ardor was undeterred. He said I looked like a sci-fi punk rocker chick. In a good way. And even bald, I tried to focus on the positive: like no hair…anywhere. Smooth as silk and no razor burn. I tried to “own it.” And did.
Maybe it’s all about attitude, point of view. But sometimes that POV becomes distorted. I.e., I went through a lot of effort to make sure Peter didn’t see me breast-less at home or get a gander at the scar that sliced across my chest. This meant a lot of artful draping and thoughtfully-chosen lingerie. But one day Peter told me he’d seen my scar and it wasn’t that terrible.
“When?” I asked, annoyed the valiant attempts masking my incision had failed.
“In the doctor’s office, when he examines you,” Peter said. Oh, I’d forgotten about that. Somehow, in my pretzel logic, an examination room was different than our bedroom. But Peter had seen my scar and it didn’t make any difference to him. In his beautiful mind, I was still “me.”
Almost four years after my breast cancer diagnosis, here we are. I don’t cringe anymore when Peter’s hand caresses my mastectomy scar (and the cherry blossom tattoo that now decorates it). Every day is a journey, and sometimes a struggle, but here we stand. Still.
My advice to other couples: just remember you love each other, no matter what. With love, the rest of it falls into place.