How it affects family relationships
Relationships within families can change as the result of illness. Some families find it difficult to talk about cancer or share their feelings. One man remembered that when he told his mother about his cancer on the phone she replied, “Oh, you'd better have a word with your father”. Another young man we interviewed said he found it really hard to talk to his parents about his illness, and found it impossible to say exactly what he was feeling.
The cancer diagnosis may have different meanings for different families. One man, for example, couldn't tell his sister about his testicular cancer because both his parents had died of cancer, and he knew she would be upset.
Some men asserted that the cancer diagnosis was more devastating for their families than it was for them. One man mentioned that his young children had been worried about his illness, fearing he might die. Another man said that he had to find support for his children because they found it so hard to cope with the situation (Macmillan Cancer Support’s website has a helpful section on talking to children).
Recalls it was hard telling his wife and children about the cancer and asserts that it was...
Explains that his family has found it hard to come to terms with cancer.
And in the end I had to get support for my son and daughter from other sources, you know through the doctor.
Because I realise now, they were worrying more than I was.
One man said it was very hard telling family and friends because they became so upset, and he felt that he was somehow 'to blame' for upsetting them. He felt that he had to 'manage' the information that he passed on to some of his family, taking care not to worry them unduly. He found it easier to carry on life 'as normal'. Another man remembered that his family became 'overprotective' when he was ill.
Says that he almost felt he was to blame for upsetting the family by giving them bad news.
What I'm saying is that I almost felt that by telling family and friends what was happening to me, the fact that they were upset by that news and they were very concerned, that I almost felt to blame for telling them the bad news!
So it had come pretty much like a bolt from the blue, for most of my family and friends. And you know they were very concerned and people wanted to come up and stay with me and visit, and wanted to check I was OK. And you know although I was genuinely very deeply touched by their concern, in many ways I still felt that for me it was easier for me to try and keep the routine of my normal life going. And, and deal with the disease on my own terms which was you know to, to, I don't know, I don't feel I was running away from it, I don't feel I was repressing anything.
Relatives may feel a sense of helplessness, fear or despair during the period of diagnosis and treatment, but feel that they must present a 'brave face' at all times.
Some men recalled that family members hid their feelings, trying to be strong for them. One said that his wife hid her feelings until he was cured, and only then did she express her distress. Another man wished he had tried to discuss his illness with other people. He said that he had forgotten that other people were worried too.
Recalls that his family were very supportive and that they hid their own feelings about his illness.
It was difficult to be, not to be aware. They were supportive but I guess they were also hiding a lot at the same time, their own emotions because they were trying to be strong for me I think. Trying to keep as much normality as possible, but being there when I needed them. And I think that really helped. But then I was a real pig at times I mean because you're doing it for, you've got to do it for yourself, but the way you treat them a little bit can be not so great. And they coped well (laughs) they coped very well with that so I feel very good that they did and you know I apologised to them at the time because sometimes you don't realise what you're like.
Remembers that his wife put on a brave face while he had cancer but was feeling very bad inside.
When I came home uh that Christmas Eve and I said 'Right that's it girl I, I've got tests to go to but I'm clear now.' that's when, that's when it all came out. That's when all the tears happened and I got called names and God knows what else for telling her and 'You'd be the only person that would come home and say you've got cancer.' you know, moan, moan, moan. It came out in bits over the next couple of months, you know that she'd, how bad she'd been feeling and what have you. But they won't tell you, they won't tell you the truth while you're going through it, no, they'll, they'll wait until you're clear and then give you a right earful!
Wives and partners may offer tremendous support. One man we spoke to said that his wife put her life on hold' for three months, thinking about his needs instead of her own. Men may become quite dependent on their wives for a while and this can affect long-term relationships. One man said that he and his wife found it very hard dealing with threats of cancer recurrence. However, another man thought that cancer had brought him and his wife closer together.
Explains that his wife was very supportive, and that it was tough for her.
I talked initially obviously to my wife and in many ways it probably was tougher for her than it was for me. I lived with it and therefore knew exactly how I was feeling and knew immediately whenever results came through. My wife just had to wait and although I was able to phone her fairly quickly after getting results the waiting was the worst part as far as she was concerned. I think her feelings she expressed to me were that, that she put her life on hold for probably three months whilst we went through the process, and found it difficult to, to sort of think beyond that sort of period of time. So it was tough for her. And as far as the rest of my family is concerned, I didn't really talk to them at all about it until I knew where I stood.
Arthur Frank suggests that long term relationships may suffer as the result of cancer.
'the problem is really after cancer, not during cancer. It's really putting together a kind of equal sharing relationship after this period when one spouse or partner has been so completely dependent on the other. Cancer is highly corrosive to relationships and you know our relationship will never be the same.
But cancer does, it does have this long-term effect and I think, I think it's important for couples to realise that they're going to have to do very significant ongoing re-negotiation of relationships afterwards.
Getting back to relationships I think that the real problem for my wife and me was dealing with these threats of recurrence. Because people just burn out on cancer, I mean I was burnt out with it, my wife was as burnt out with it and by the time I had this serious fear of recurrence, the most serious one, they were all serious but the most serious one we had a little daughter, we had an 11 month old daughter. My wife had had a very difficult pregnancy, she was still not back to you know her usual physical shape, we had this wonderful active baby to take care of, which was exhausting for any new parents, and we just really couldn't handle this you know it was just, it just pushed us over the edge that we might have to go back into a world of cancer again. And I think that was really where our problem was and fortunately we didn't have to go back into a world of cancer and we just you know we picked up again and went on. But I guess the message that's important about all this is as I said it's often when cancer is resolved medically, when you're in remission that I think the real relationship issues begin, and that the people may need psycho-social counselling, whatever help.
The brothers and sisters of a young person with cancer may feel neglected during illness because parents are so concerned about the ill member of the family.
Suggests that his brother and sister had less attention because his parents were so preoccupied...
It affected my family a lot. Probably as much as it affected me. I've got a younger brother and sister who were pretty much put by the wayside and moved between family friends and other members of the family whilst I was in. And obviously my parents' focus was completely on me because I was so ill, and so they, they weren't ignored, but they were put aside. And my parents would get back from the hospital every evening and say "Hello, how was your day?" and eat a meal and then go straight to bed because they were coming straight back the next day.
So it did affect everyone a lot.
One man we interviewed sadly recalled that when he had cancer in 1968 his brother and father didn't visit him when he was in hospital. He could only suppose that they were scared of cancer and since they believed that cancer was genetically inherited, couldn't contemplate the idea that they might one day have the same disease (see 'Ideas about causes').