Relationships after a cancer diagnosis

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Relationships after a cancer diagnosis

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, once you receive a cancer diagnosis, your life is changed forever. One of the biggest areas that may change is relationships:

Relationships with your partner, with your friends and family, and quite often – the relationship you have with yourself.

Close relationships

So first of all, thinking about your intimate relationship with your partner, whether you're in a marriage, or you've got a close relationship with the living with somebody, whoever you spending the most time with, cancer and its treatment can cause so many changes in your life. You might be worried about how your relationships with friends and family might change. If you have a partner, you might be worried about changes to your relationship. Or you might be thinking about starting a new relationship. Even close families or couples who've been together for a long time can have problems, for some people going through an experience together, like cancer can make relationships stronger. I'm not saying that is without its challenges. That was my experience. I had been married for a long time, I was lucky to be in a strong marriage, but going through cancer treatment, dealing with chemotherapy, and then the mental anguish that I went through after having a mastectomy and how I felt about myself, and how I felt about being intimate with my husband, it was very difficult and put strain on both of us. And sometimes you have to think about your partner as well, in a traditional relationship, a man and a wife, your partner may be used to being the strong one, for many men they show love by being the one able to ‘fix things’ And unfortunately, you can't fix cancer, not quickly anyway. And that can cause relationship problems as well, it can cause frustration, not to mention all the things that go with all the changes that you're going through not just your health, but your energy levels, your priorities may have changed, your finances might be under a lot of stress as well. And there's so much going on for you to both to deal with. And of course, every relationship is different. Every cancer journey is different.

I wanted to share some things that have helped me and that have helped other people that I know.

Intimate relationships after cancer

In your intimate relationship, the most important thing, and we all know it, but sometimes we forget is communication. When you're trying to deal with difficult things, it can be just a comfort, to feel listened to and to be heard. It really helped me to take some time out to talk about feelings and what is important to you, that can help you feel closer. But if you make it very clear to partner, you don't want them to fix anything you don't ask, you're not asking them to make everything better. You just want to let your feelings out. Some of those feelings might be quite ugly, they might be very hard for people to hear. But be aware that both of you may have difficult feelings. And these are all normal. Try and find out about each other's feelings by asking questions, listening and talking. And again, that can be quite scary. Sometimes you don't really want to lift the lid on those problems. But you generally the more you talk, the better things are. Remember, you don't have to have the answer for every worry or question. Quite a common thing that hey, a lot of people that have been through cancer treatment is no matter how good a relationship they've got, no matter how good their circle of friends are, they can feel very, very lonely. They can feel like nobody understands them. And that's part of the reason why I created my Confidence after Cancer group, blog and podcast. Because that's how I felt. I felt very alone. I felt like nobody understood what I was going through. I felt like everyone just expected me to bounce back to the person that I was before the diagnosis and I knew deep inside of me, I was never ever going to be the same. Not because I was dwelling on it, admittedly there was some self pity in the in the early days, I think I've got over that self pity now, but I am very different person to the person that walked into that diagnosis. And I think that's true for a lot of people.

I'm not going to make generalisations because we're all different people, we all deal with things in a different way. And we've all got our own journey to follow. But I can share some general tips, things that have helped me and if you're feeling alone realise it's quite common. And for some people, they never talk about it because it feels a bit self indulgent. It feels a bit selfish. It feels a bit ungrateful for everything that you've been through your medical team and everybody that's helped you recover. Isn't it a little bit ungrateful and a little bit selfish to be feeling so bad? But no, you you've had so much to deal with. And we know it's not fair, bad things do happen to good people, unfortunately.

Even though I have studied cancer prevention, like my life depended on it – spoiler alert – it really did!

I do everything I can to keep myself healthy, but there are no guarantees for any of us, it's just about taking responsibility and doing what you can.

So going back to what I said about feeling lonely, that's understandable, but you're not alone. And that's why I'm here for you. But also, there are lots of support groups. Some of them might be local for you, some of them may be online. They're all the people who are in similar situations to yourself. Not exactly the same, because we've all got unique situation. But sometimes just to speak to other people that have been through what you've been through can be so helpful.

It's also worth bearing in mind that some people around you may be afraid of the word cancer, it may bring up as we've talked about, before feelings of fear, many people equate cancer with death, and think that surely it means terrible things are going to happen. But we know more and more people are surviving cancer and live in full and beautiful lives after treatment is finished. And that's what we all strive for, turning from a survivor into a thriver.

But just being aware that some people are afraid, and it's understandable in a way, how you deal with that is your choice. You're not there to fix those people. But just a little bit of understanding sometimes goes a long way.

Friends and Family relationships after a cancer diagnosis

I have done a lot of thinking about relationships, particularly thinking about, are they helpful to you? Are they there to support you? Are they the friends that you want, and that might sound really hard and clinical, but I did a lot of reflecting after my diagnosis about the people that I was spending my time Some people, they lift and they support you, they give you good energy, they're great to be around, they're fun to be around, I am more and more conscious now of the effect that other people have on me. And I refuse to let people who bring me down people with a negative vibe, if you like, spread their doom and gloom to me. One of the things I came across a few years ago and I've shared this quite a lot is to do an exercise. We can call it the detox exercise, or Drains and Radiators. So we all know about detox in your house, we know about decluttering. So how would it feel if we did a little exercise just to reflect on how you feel about the people you're spending time with. So I would invite you to get a pen and paper sit down and take five minutes to do this exercise because it's really useful. So what I want you to do is think about the last month, who have you spent time with? It could be work colleagues, it could be your family, could be your friends, neighbours, whatever it is people that you're around, maybe go back through your diary or your planner, if your memory is as bad as mine. Think about that last month or maybe two months? Who have you been around? Who have you interacted with? Who have you spent time with? So these are the people in your life. Now, no judgement here, we're just going to look at this and do a little exercise. So on a big piece of paper, I'd like you to draw a vertical line from the bottom of the page to the top of the page. And in the middle of that line, we're going to call that zero. And at the bottom of the page, we're going to call that minus 10. And so at the top of that page, no surprise, is plus 10. And if you can, if we can make some sections in between equal marks, you know, this is not an exact science, this is just to give you an idea of what's going on in your life, in a way maybe that you've never thought about it before.

So what I want you to do is look at the list of the names that you did before people that you've been spending the time with. And I want you to just pick the first name and think about how you feel when you think about that person. Just your gut reaction. How do you feel? Is it a positive? Is it negative? Is it ‘Oh, my goodness, they are a plus 10. They make me feel amazing. They make me laugh. They made me feel loved. They make me feel cherished, they make me feel valued. They're a plus 10 the sort of people that I just can't get enough of and I want to be around even more’. Or other people maybe they're not so positive. You may think, ‘ yes I've spent time with them, but I never come away feeling very good about myself or about them, they are quite negative’.

Your first thought may be, I have to spend time with them,  it's my work colleague, or it's somebody in my family. There is no judgement here, just at the moment just think about how you feel when you think about them, your gut reaction, and put that person on your piece of paper and give it a score. I am hoping as most people have, you've got a very good mixture. Maybe you've got positive and negative, maybe people just sat in the middle.

It was very interesting for me when I did this exercise, I realised I was spending quite a lot of time with somebody who didn't make me feel very good. I felt it was an obligation, it was somebody in the family, not a close family member but somebody that I was spending an awful lot of time with, I had attempted to help her with a lot of problems she had in her life. But this had been going on for far too long, and I'd let it go on because I felt guilty if I didn't spend time with her. I felt like she needed me. What my cancer diagnosis gave me,  one of the hidden gifts that it gave me was the chance to step back, re-evaluate and think about who I was spending my time with. I asked - Do they make me feel good, they make me feel negative?

 And hopefully if you've done this exercise, you can see very clearly people in your life that you've got positive connections with, people that you've got positive feelings about. And so my question about that would be a spending enough time with these people? They are clearly what I would call ‘good stuff’ in your life. They are people who make you feel uplifted, they make you feel good, and which is great. And we all need more of that.

What about the people that make you feel negative, what can you do about that? Well, you've got choices, you are in control of your own life. Sometimes we think we don't, for instance, ‘it's my mother, I have to spend time with her’. But you've got choice of how you react to her, you could try setting some boundaries with her. If she's doing things that are pushing your buttons and making you feel negative, maybe that's a conversation that you need to have, do you need to spend so much time with people who make you feel like that, or is actually this a good opportunity for you to step back and think things need to change for the better for me for my own self protection, and for my health.

If you want to reflect or chat about any of this, get in touch with me, because I'd love to hear from you. But I found this really, really fascinating when I first did it. And it helped me a lot to think about what I want more of in my life, which is positive, supportive people, people who are fun to be around people who've got the same values as me.

I know from my own personal experience, as I've got older, and as I've gone through my cancer diagnosis, is that I'm quite open to people having different points of view than I have. It would be a boring old world of your fault, the same thoughts. But some people's opinions, I've come to realise, particularly in a wider circle of friends, to me now are quite offensive. There are things that I can't accept. So I would ask you to think about your values and what's important to you. And sometimes we all have different interpretations of that.

I heard somebody say recently, ‘I'm very honest’. Most people think they are. And yet this person said,  when I had an insurance claim, that I should put more things on claim that had really been stolen. They were advising me to do a fraudulent claim, which did not sit very well with me. As always I try not to judge people, I’m simply inviting you to think about the values that are important to you. Are they the same values of the people that you're spending time with?

For me, I had some people in my life, that I felt I had to  make a conscious decision to distance myself from them. We didn't need to have a difficult conversation, we didn't need to have an argument, I just decided that I didn’t want to spend time with them. We're too different, and I need self protection

Remember we always have choices, you may feel like you haven't, you may feel like you've got obligations you can't get out of, but we've all got choices.

Relationship with yourself after cancer treatment

I’m going to finish by reflecting on the most important relationship that you're ever going to have. And that's the relationship you've got with yourself. That is the relationship you've got with that person when you look in the mirror. Think about how you feel about that person. I've discovered quite recently, a lot of people don't even like themselves, they've got a lot of negative connotations. There's a lot of guilt and a lot of shame with people, often a lot of regrets.

And I'd say if that's you, give yourself a hug a virtual hug, and remember that at that time you did the best you could with what you had. You are now older and hopefully wiser, and can make some changes if you want to. That's if you want to change. We can all learn from our mistakes, and we all make mistakes. The important thing I think is to show yourself some compassion, some forgiveness, don't be so hard on yourself. How would it feel to show yourself some unconditional love? How would it be if you adopted an attitude of curiosity and acceptance for the mistakes that you've made and think that's interesting? Why did you do that thing, not beating yourself up not going over and over in your mind telling yourself how useless you are because you've made this mistake? That's no help to anybody. But what I would like you to do is reflect and show yourself some compassion and some forgiveness. Okay, stop, expecting yourself to be perfect because nobody is perfect.

And you may feel the thoughts in your head are ugly, or unpleasant. And if you really feel like that, maybe you need some help. You might need to talk to your doctor, or a good therapist. If needed, go and get that help. But generally, a lot of us are just so tough on ourselves. I'd really ask yourself, think about the relationship with yourself. Heal that relationship first. And then once you've done that, and you are feeling good about yourself, you're feeling kind about yourself. You know who you are, you know what your values are. Only then can you have successful loving relationships with somebody else. Don't go to somebody else, particularly romantic partners, looking for them to ‘fix you’. Often people will be feeling pretty broken and then go into a relationship and wonder why their partner isn't saving them.

You can be your own Saviour, you really can. No matter what's happened to you in the past, everything is fixable. You need to start by showing yourself some compassion, and forgiveness, and some self love,

Thank you so much for reading, it means a lot to me. Please reach out to me if you'd like any help on any issue that you're having. I'd love to hear from you. I hope you have a wonderful day.

Thanks for reading, Stay sane, stay safe!

I'd love to send you a free gift - from my heart to your heart - click below to get my book, Confidence after Cancer:

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Gabby x


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