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Living with and beyond cancer

Relationship with a spouse or partner

While people are being treated for cancer they may be too ill to look after themselves and become dependent on their spouse or partner for help with personal care as well as household tasks. Many people said their spouse or partner had been supportive and looked after them while they were ill. A woman with ovarian cancer said that her husband had gradually taken over more household tasks and eventually accepted the need to get outside help. Some said their relationship had become stronger or they were closer as a result of the illness; Diane says her husband has become more protective of her. Several said that there had been no effect on their relationship, which had continued the same as before the illness.
 

She says that being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia one year into her marriage altered...

She says that being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia one year into her marriage altered...

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 28
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 I think the initial diagnosis kind of hit us both a little bit. I mean we’d been married just a year to the day almost, when I was diagnosed, so that was very hard. Obviously it kind of changed the, what can I say, it changed the dynamics of the relationship in quite a major way, because you don’t really expect something like this to happen to you when you’re newly married and, you know, you’ve got your life ahead of you. 

 
Then it’s been a learning curve since then, you know, things have not helped, things have not worked out for us in the normal sense of the terms and, you know, as in getting married and, you know, discovering new places, new things, interests. All of those things have kind of just come by the by. It’s always been my illness and my treatments and, you know, rushing round from one place to the other, the hospitals and so on, and concentrating on getting better. That’s how it’s been for us. So it’s been slightly different sort of dynamics. But it’s been a long, it’s been long sort of twelve long years, so hopefully, you know, it’s not been that bad. 
 
How do you think your husband’s coped with your illness?
 
He’s taken it in his stride. He’s been very supportive. Obviously it can’t have been completely, you know, completely without disappointments for him. As I said, the circumstances in which I was diagnosed were quite unfortunate. I’d only been married for a year and, you know, we were still kind of discovering married life and all of that. And all of that was suddenly abandoned and everybody’s attentions were now focused on me getting better. So it couldn’t have been easy for somebody who was, you know, suddenly found themselves from a position of being a husband to one of being a carer that, you know, yes people do that but maybe not, you know, a year into their marriage. So I think, yeah, but he’s not a very expressive person anyway. He’s quite a sort of, he keeps things to himself a lot. But it’s been quite hard on him I think. I think he does have some bitterness, but on the whole he’s been very, very supportive and he’s looked after me very well and encouraged me in, you know, in sort of professional pursuits and so on.
 
Having cancer can put a strain on the relationship with a spouse or partner, particularly where the partner has had to assume a caring role as well as coping with the emotional impact of the illness, and some people we spoke to said there had been relationship difficulties. For instance, those who said their partner was struggling to cope with the impact of the illness sometimes said that it made it more difficult for them to cope themselves. A woman living beyond colorectal cancer said that her partner’s way of coping had been to go to the pub every evening during her illness, he moved into the spare bedroom so that ‘she would sleep better’ but he still sleeps there now, which upsets her greatly. Christopher said that he had been so focused on his prostate cancer that he hadn’t paid as much attention to his wife as he should.
 

Carole developed depression after her breast cancer, which altered her behaviour towards her...

Carole developed depression after her breast cancer, which altered her behaviour towards her...

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 55
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And what about your husband? Do you think that having had cancer affected your relationship with him?
 
It did. He was a bit shattered and at times didn’t really know how to deal with it. He wouldn’t go to any men’s groups or counselling or that sort of thing. He just didn’t, he would insist that he didn’t need it, but I think it did, you know, he was anxious. And when I was going through the struggle with the depression and he couldn’t deal with it at all, he didn’t know what was wrong. It was only when my daughter came home and said, that he sort of began to understand. He thought that my attitude to him had changed, and I wasn’t aware of if it had. I mean there were times when I just wanted to run away from him. I didn’t, you know, I didn’t want to speak to him. I didn’t want him around me. Looking back on it, you know, afterwards I thought, “Well, why didn’t I ring, you know, why didn’t I do something about it then?” But I just thought that, I think it may have been that I thought that he wasn’t reacting to me, that he wasn’t understanding me the way I thought he should, and it wasn’t that at all. 
 
It was just this awful, so afterwards I would say it took a while for us to work back to our former relationship, I’m sure of it. You know, now that I think about it, it did take a while and a lot of reassuring on my, of me reassuring him that it had, you know, that it wasn’t anything, that it wasn’t really me. Some husbands deal with, just looking, you know, from my experience some husbands deal with it very well and then others, obviously, it happens in life doesn’t it, others can’t cope with it at all. But my husband was very supportive in our decisions that had to be made, you know. 

 

A woman whose kidneys had been damaged by ovarian cancer treatment was living apart from her husband so that she could get dialysis on the NHS in the UK and he could remain in paid work in Canada, they spoke on the phone every day.
 
Some people said that once they had recovered from their illness and were no longer so dependent on their partner, there had been challenges in restoring equality in their relationship. Sometimes people felt their personality had changed after having cancer and this had altered the dynamics within their relationship. Marilyn said that living with chronic leukaemia had made her more confident, which was changing the dynamics of her marriage after 41 years. A man who had recovered from testicular cancer suggested that couples might benefit from counselling to help them renegotiate the terms of their relationship after cancer.
 

Her husband had done everything for her while she was ill with ovarian cancer but now that she...

Her husband had done everything for her while she was ill with ovarian cancer but now that she...

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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And how’s your husband coped generally?
 
Very well, but it’s left him with a great need to control every situation, because for so long I suppose, in the beginning and then twice more when I was really touch and go, your carers have to do everything, don’t they? You know, think of every meal, think of things that will tempt you to eat, change the beds, do the washing, sort out somebody to do the cleaning, make sure there’s food in the larder, remember everybody’s birthday. 
 
They have to do everything and care for you as well, and then when you get better that’s really hard isn’t it? Because the patient gets better and says, “I can do this, I can drive myself to Tesco, I can shop”. “Oh no, no I don’t think you should do that”, and so it, it’s left him in, not knowing really how to cope when the situation changes. And so you maybe have frictions where I have to understand that if he feels I shouldn’t do things or can’t do things, it’s not because he’s controlling my life, it’s because he’s used to having to think these thoughts and to do it.
 
So I think that has made him more tense. But he’s not a verbaliser and he’s not a moaner, and we both tried from the beginning to make sure that the bits of his life that are his, like going to rowing at regattas, and being in the domino team, and going to play poker in the poker school whenever it’s on, and going to the bridge club, that he never stopped doing that.
 
And all my friends were great in that they would say, you know, to my husband, “If you want to go to bridge I’ll come and sit with…”, me, and that was important to me as well, and often he would only just go up to the pub but he would leave the number by the bed. I only once ever had to ring to ask him to come back but it was important for both of us that normal life carries on. So I think he’s been very good at that and that’s really the only relatively small thing, although it seems like a big thing when you’re bickering about who can drive the car or whatever, you know.

 

Unfortunately a few people we spoke to said that their long-term relationship had broken down during or after their cancer. This is not unusual after having to share the burden of potentially serious illness; dealing with such a challenge can reveal flaws in a relationship that had not been apparent before the illness.
 
Some people believed that their own emotional reaction to the illness had contributed to or caused the break-up of their relationship. Alan (Interview 22) had become depressed and irritable during his colorectal cancer, thinking that he would never get well again. He said that this contributed in large part to the downfall of his marriage.
 

Having lymphoma made him really angry and he coped badly; he didn’t accept offers of...

Having lymphoma made him really angry and he coped badly; he didn’t accept offers of...

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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 Through the second period of cancer my personality changed, I think that’s quite an interesting one. I turned from a sort of happy outgoing kind of person to a sort of introspective, unhappy, certainly very angry - and this is only in retrospect now, I mean at the time I didn’t know it but, you know - I was really angry at this intrusion into, you know, my life, I think. And, you know, this had a detrimental effect on my marriage and all the people around me. And I found, you know, I was impossible to talk to, I wouldn’t listen to, you know, people saying that, you know, “Oh you’re changing”, or, “You’re not the person you used to be”, or, “You need to go and seek some help about your anger”, or, “This is affecting, you know, your relationships with your wife or children or your friends”, or, you know, “I don’t like the kind of person you’re turning into”. And certainly it was, you know, I wasn’t available to listen to this kind of stuff, even from professionals. 

 
And people around me who, me having cancer affected them as much as it affected me, well of course at the time, you know, I never really, I couldn’t see it, you can only see the problem you’re going through. And this definitely affected all the people who were around me and who wanted me to get better and who cared for me. And I could’ve handled that much better if there’d been somewhere, someone there who I’d have been able to talk to. I couldn’t really talk to my consultant because, you know, he was dealing with, you know, another twenty people at the time and I considered myself to be a strong enough person. You know, I think of myself as a coper, you know, I can cope with anything but, you know, looking back obviously I coped quite badly with what I went through. 
 
And through, once the second set of treatments had finished, the anger that I felt through that process, that carried on for a number of years and I think, you know, my personality changed and it was definitely a detrimental effect on my relationship with my wife and my son, you know. I’m not particularly pleased about the way I was during that my period, especially as my son was so young.
 
Were you ever offered any kind of counselling or anything to deal with your feelings?
 
Yes I was offered, well I was told where counselling was available. My wife independently went off to see the consultant and a cancer charity to talk about the problems that we were having through the process and after the process. I mean the fact that once the treatment finished and I was okay and then it never came back again for years afterwards, I mean I was never the same person, and I think I only got back to being the person I was before personality-wise maybe five or six or seven years after the event, by which time it was too late for, things had been said and done which couldn’t be unsaid and undone. 
 
And if I’d been offered counseling, or if I’d gone for it, I think I was a little bit too proud to go for counselling as well, which was a mistake obviously. But if it had been more readily available or more strongly advised to me and I’d gone for it then maybe some of the things that were said and done wouldn’t have been said and done and maybe things would have turned out better after the event.
 
So it ended in the break-up of your marriage in the end, didn’t it?
 
Yes it ended up in the break-up of my marriage, and I have to say that my, I mean my ex-wife through the whole process, you know, she was fantastic, it wasn’t her fault. But cancer affects everybody, it just do
Some relationships broke up during the illness because the person’s partner didn’t feel able to provide the necessary support.
 

His long-term girlfriend gave him no support at all after his testicular cancer diagnosis and...

His long-term girlfriend gave him no support at all after his testicular cancer diagnosis and...

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 30
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At the time the girl that I was with that I've been with long-term, she provided no support whatsoever, she was worse than rubbish, and in fact she made it quite clear to me that she didn't want to be with me.
 
Oh dear.
 
So that caused the end of our relationship. But again it was somebody that I couldn't talk to, so much so that - I can laugh at it now but I mean it hurt badly at the time - so much so that I phoned her up and told her that I might be left with long-term kidney damage. And it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, and said that they'd changed my drug regimen because it was starting to damage my kidneys. And she said, "Look I'm not interested, I'm getting ready for a Christmas do". And I went, "Oh thanks very much". And that was a really tough one as well. 
Other relationships remained intact until the person with cancer was well again before breaking up. It was common in these relationships for partners to remain supportive throughout the illness but to leave once the person with cancer had recovered sufficiently to no longer be dependent upon them. Julie’s partner had supported her throughout her leukaemia treatment but their relationship broke up after she came home from a long period in hospital. She explained' “It was just that the leukaemia had held us together for so long, and we were arguing and things and we just felt that it was a time to part”. A man had a physical relationship with a woman throughout his penile cancer treatment but they are now just ‘great friends’.
 

Ann says that in hindsight her husband didn’t cope well with her leukaemia; he left her just as...

Ann says that in hindsight her husband didn’t cope well with her leukaemia; he left her just as...

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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How did your husband cope with all of this?
 
In hindsight he didn’t. At the time when it was all happening I think he was as dumbstruck as I was. But I think long-term I don’t think he coped with it. 
 
And at what stage did your relationship break down?
 
Funnily enough as everything was getting all right. As everything started to be okay, and I still get very, very tired now, I’m sort of, I’m seven years post-transplant but, and when I tell them at the hospital it’s, ‘What do you expect?’, and that’s all I get. But saying that, I do my best to keep as fit as I possibly can. But it did, it broke down, it literally broke down as things were getting better.
 
Why do you think that is?
 
I don’t know. I honestly cannot say, apart from, if you like, how the marriage broke up and what the final straw was. But I just felt that he’d, he didn’t, I don’t think he ever, I think he thought that, when I used to come out of the hospital after my treatment I was fine, and I think he expected that when I came out of hospital following my transplant that I would be in the same picture of health, if you like, and I wasn’t. And it took a good two years for me to be anything like normal, if you like. Also, losing the hair didn’t do me a lot of good, losing a vast amount of weight didn’t do me a lot of good, plus putting the weight back on. That’s the part of it that I found hard to deal with, if you like, but what did it matter? There’s always a wig. Do you know what I mean?
 
I mean I don’t make any bones about the fact that it was my husband that broke up the relationship, but it was at the point where everything was getting better that it broke up. 
 
And what about the infertility issue? Was that a part of the problem with your marriage?
 
I would say that it was and it wasn’t. It was a case, I think you’ve got to, I tried to rationalise it, how can I put it? I did try and rationalise that, you know, the possibility was I might not have been here, so what is the point of having a child if it can’t have a mother? And that was the way that I’ve I had to think, and just do it that way, and I suppose in any marriage a child is a blessing anyway and it’s an add-on, if you like. You know, it’s something that you don’t necessarily expect, but when you are getting married you do expect that you’re going to have a child if you want children. But, you know, there was other things open to us at the time, like adoption, whatever, but we just never got round to doing things like that, and possibly on my own I don’t know whether I could cope with a child, to be honest, so… 
 
Six years after being treated for cervical cancer, a woman developed a pain in her uterus which she attributed to a possible recurrence, but it wasn’t. It was at that point that her husband decided he could not cope with the prospect of supporting her through cancer treatment again, so he left. A woman who was living with chronic myeloid leukaemia said that her partner supported her before they got married but then changed his behaviour towards her and tried to stop her doing things she believed were helping her to stay well so she asked him to leave.
 
Several people said they had felt anxious about the prospect of seeking a new partner, assuming that no-one would want them because of their cancer history and its physical impacts, such as loss of reproductive organs. A woman treated for cervical cancer had continual vaginal bleeding while taking hormone therapy, so couldn’t contemplate starting a new physical relationship during that time; the bleeding has since stopped and she feels ready for a new relationship.
Some people had entered a new relationship since their cancer experience and said that their new partner was understanding and supportive. Judging when to disclose information about the cancer and its effects could be tricky. Some people said they told their new partner about it early on before things got serious in case they were rejected because of it. Steve explained to his friend that he’d had surgery for penile cancer before asking her to marry him; he was relieved that she didn’t ‘knock him back’.
 

Her new partner is understanding about her past cervical cancer; she tried to hide her fear of...

Her new partner is understanding about her past cervical cancer; she tried to hide her fear of...

Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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Mentally it was easy when I was with my husband because I thought he understands, he knows. But when I was going into a new relationship it was something that I thought someone’s not going to like me because of this. But it’s actually amazing how people understand. My new boyfriend hasn’t got a problem with it at all. And he will be in the car with me and spot the toilets for me if I need to go, so he’s very supportive. I think it’s something again you’ve got to talk about. If you don’t tell your friends and you don’t admit that you’ve got a problem, then you probably have a problem yourself mentally, because dealing with that is quite hard if you don’t admit it. 
 
Well I’m with a new partner now that I’ve been with for a year, and it was the first time he’s experienced an appointment, basically, and he saw a difference in me, because I was very, you become very introverted, you don’t even want to talk about it, but it’s all going on inside your head. You’re imaging, you know, what if there is something on the right hand side, how am I going to deal with it, how’s he going to deal with it, is he going to stay with me, is he going to panic and run like my ex-husband? So all those feelings were going on in my head and I didn’t really want to tell him that I was afraid because I wasn’t sure how I felt really, and if it was nothing I didn’t want to pretend it was something; if it was something I didn’t want to put the pressure on him, so it was quite an emotional week. Although he was very supportive.
 
 

Julie was nervous about telling her new partner that she’d had leukaemia treatment which had made...

Julie was nervous about telling her new partner that she’d had leukaemia treatment which had made...

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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So how do you feel now about the infertility?
 
That hasn’t been easy because I was, as I said to you, I was with a partner. That was in ’97. We didn’t stay together. It was tough all round because when you come out of the hospital it’s a whole new world for you. And obviously emotions are running high and the nurses always used to say to me, you know, ‘If you’re, if you last through this you’ll last through anything’. And we didn’t last, which was unfortunate but, hey, one of those things. 
 
And I then met a, my now husband, in 2000 and I thought to myself, ‘Oh God. I really like this guy and how do I tell him that I can’t have his children?’ So it wasn’t that far into our relationship that I said to him, ‘I’ve got something to tell you’. And he went, ‘Oh God. I knew it, you’re married’. I went, ‘No, no, no, no. I’m not married’. ‘The little girl at your house the other, your parents’ house the other day, she’s yours?’ I said, ‘No, no, no’. I’m, ‘Yeah. God I’d love her to be mine’. No, she was my niece then, she still is, and I said, ‘I can’t have children’, I said, ‘Three years ago I was diagnosed with leukaemia and because of my treatment I can’t have children’. And he said to me, ‘Is that it?’ I said, ‘Kind of a big it, don’t you think?’ And he went, ‘No, no’. He said, ‘We’ve found one another. It’s taken me a lifetime to find you. I’ve found you’. He said, ‘No we’ll have a good life’. He said, ‘Doesn’t matter that you can’t have children, and we’ll never speak about it again’. And God love him he never has.

​Last reviewed October 2018.


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