Relationships Can Survive Cancer Too!

18 Apr 2020

Relationships can survive cancer - just like you are able to. While we know cancer can be a destructive force in many ways, we have the power to ensure it doesn't strain our precious relationships. Gestalt Therapist, counsellor, and two times cancer survivor, Lesley McPherson, offers her advice on how your relationships can survive cancer too. 

Reframe Your Perception of Cancer
Firstly, take away any ‘ownership’ of the illness. It is not ‘your’ illness. It is an illness that has happened to you. When we begin to use language such as “my cancer” or “my illness” we mentally take possession of it. In some cases, this may lead to a person clinging to it. They may even allow themselves to become identified by it.

Cancer – or any illness you may have – is not your story. It is one chapter in your tale. However, thanks to the many capabilities of modern medicine, it’s a chapter that the great majority of people are able to overcome. Many going on to live long, fulfilled and healthy lives. Your relationships can survive cancer in much the same way.

Don't Compare Your Journey
It's important to recognise that each persons’ journey with cancer is different. Do not compare your journey with another’s. Just as your treatment protocols will vary, so too will your outcomes.

Concentrate on what your medical specialists advise and explore alternative positive health avenues too. These might include meditation, or reading time-honoured, useful books that help unravel the impact that your mind can have on health and well-being.

Pack a mental, or indeed physical, toolbox of positivity that contains all you need to draw from during your down periods, because yes, you will have bad days throughout this journey. It might contain your favourite upbeat music, a book such as mentioned above, a letter from a dear friend, a beautifully soft blanket to wrap yourself in …  things, thoughts and treasured items that bring you comfort, peace and joy.

Develop Strategies with Loved Ones to Help Relationships Survive Cancer

Sometimes, this journey can be as difficult for loved ones as it is for the person actually travelling the road. Knowing what to do or say can be a minefield, as emotions can swing like a pendulum.

For relationships to survive cancer, I think patience is imperative, as is kindness and a sense of calm. If you can maintain these three key elements, it may be easier to navigate the journey.

From there, I would suggest to loved ones that they seek external support too. This may be in the form of a counsellor, a mentor, or a trusted, wise friend or associate. There’s a famous old saying, “you cannot pour from an empty jug,” and never is this truer than when you take on the role of a carer or supporter of a loved one who is battling a grave illness. Self-care is every bit as important for them as it is for the person who is ill.


Managing Conflict During Diagnosis and Treatment

Conflict is bound to arise, as emotions will be very raw and this situation is likely new to all involved.

I would absolutely suggest everyone involved seek professional advice from a counsellor or support group. You don’t have to go it alone. There are many resources available nationwide, such as Pink Hope, who are there to help all involved.

If a conflict arises – and it undoubtedly will – you will have a lot of emotions to deal with. One will be guilt, especially if you are the partner or loved one of the person who is unwell.

My advice is to sit with any emotions you're feeling - and let them wash over you.

You are experiencing this illness too, just in a different way, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you lash out or snap at someone.

Everyone’s emotions will be running at a higher frequency than usual. Be kind to yourself. This applies to all involved – the person who is unwell and their loved ones. And again, reach out for help.


Some Useful Strategies To Cope With Anxiety And The Unknown

This brings me back to the ‘Positivity Toolbox’. Keep building on it throughout your journey and add to it, drawing on whatever you may be keeping in it when you need it.

It may also help to seek out a mentor. While I don’t advise comparing your journey, talking to someone (or reading about their story) who has travelled this path and come out the other end can really be a Godsend and a terrific source of strength. Support Groups such as Pink Hope or local breast cancer support groups can be very useful in this regard.


Balancing Being a Carer and a Partner
Being both the partner of someone going through a cancer journey as well as their carer is a hard path to travel. More often than not, your intimate relationship will have to take a back seat whilst your partner goes through their treatment. This is something you will need to make peace with early on. If this is hard for you, I would advise seeking professional advice to support you through this time. Remember though, this is a pause - relationships can survive cancer.

This is not to say you can’t keep romance alive with simple things like reading a treasured poem, a bouquet of flowers, or making a mixed tape of “your songs”.

Again, as a role of career, you too will need to ensure your needs are being met in terms of self-care. It is important that you don’t burn out, as this is when things can crumble, and conflict can arise.

It’s OK to lean on friends for support if/when you need time out and it is perfectly OK for you to take time out!

Ensuring Cancer Isn't The Focus Of Your Relationships

This will differ for everyone. However generally speaking, I suggest time to spend time together doing things completely non-cancer related.

Take a trip to the beach and get your feet in the sand, if that is possible. If not, perhaps a drive in the country, so you can breathe in some beautiful crisp, fresh air. Organise a regular ‘date night’.

All relationships fall into ruts at times, whether facing trying times or not. Strategizing things such as date nights can elevate everyone’s mood and shift focus dramatically.


Helping Children Cope with Their Parent's Cancer Journey 

Children will process this journey in very different ways to adults, therefore we do need to proceed with caution, care and calm.

They are likely to experience a great deal of fear and confusion, as well as potentially anger. After all they are faced with the potential of losing a parent, or an adult in their life that they rely on for love, trust and support.

At times, there will be outbursts. Do your best not to scold them. Rather, let them express these emotions and realise that they are coming from a place of fear and confusion. Sit with them and let them know it is OK for them to feel this way.

It is also likely you may feel ill equipped to cope with their emotions and thought processes adequately. This is perfectly understandable. As this is an extremely complex time for all, I would certainly seek advice from a professional counsellor or therapist to help ensure your relationships can survive cancer.

Stress Management for both Patient and Carer

We each feel and deal with stress uniquely. However, tried and true stress-release techniques can help relationships survive cancer. These include exercise (where possible) or getting away from the stress-triggers (perhaps a day away, doing something fun and different). Even a ‘stay-cation’ at home, where you binge on your favourite Netflix program and eat all the chocolate without an ounce of guilt is a great way to help ensure your relationships can survive cancer.

Also, the effect animals have on relieving stress has also been proven time and again. If you don’t have an animal in your household, perhaps look into programs such as the PAWS Pet Therapy program. This program trains volunteers and their dogs to provide specialised pet therapy. Please note: PAWS is on PAUSE during the COVID-19 crisis but hopes to resume once things return to normal.

Trusted Resources

    • Call up the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 or ask your GP for suggestions