The day after I received my breast cancer diagnosis last year, when I was still unsure whether it had spread and how bad the news really was, my partner opened his mouth to comment on my loading of the dishwasher. I knew what was coming: some clearly mistaken criticism of the positioning of the fish slice, or a question about why I’d chosen to (correctly) place the small saucepan in the top rack. But then he closed his mouth again. Immediately I told him that this couldn’t go on. No matter how ill I was, he couldn’t stop arguing with me about the dishwasher. He agreed, and stayed true to his word, despite being definitely wrong.
When you find that you’re seriously ill, you know a lot of things are going to change, and it’s scary. I was keen to keep things as normal as possible if I could, and that included my closest relationships. I didn’t want the fact of me having cancer to creep into every aspect of my life, to the extent that I’d be treated differently by people who knew me best.
But of course it’s impossible for it not to make a difference. I was sick and tired, and my family were having to watch without being able to do much about it. They had to put up with complaints when they had made an effort to do something kind. When I was given a lovely birthday present of tickets to the theatre, I responded by crying because I didn’t think I had the energy to get there. The strange taste the chemo caused made me the world’s worst food critic – I moaned about the flavour of things, as if anyone else could possibly adjust their cooking to suit me.
There were times I expected to get away with things because I was poorly, or used it as an extra weight to my argument. We’d have to watch my choice of TV programme because I was tired and couldn’t possibly stay awake for anyone else’s.
I often felt incredibly envious of the rest of my family for what I perceived as them still being able to live a normal life. As if they were. When my partner set off to play tennis or go to the pub, even on days when I didn’t fancy either, I was mean about him being able to go out while I stayed at home sorting out my tablets.
Sometimes I really wasn’t very nice – in the same way as I was before I found out I had cancer, and since the main part of my treatment ended, but more often. When recently the TV presenter Sarah Beeny said that, over the past two years – which have included her own breast cancer diagnosis and treatment – she had been “a bit horrible”, I could relate to that. I’m sure my close family could too.
Beyond my family, some relationships were renewed by me being ill. Friends from school and university were in touch after many years without contact – there were emails back and forth, which gave me lovely glimpses of livespeople I had wondered about from time to time but done nothing about.
Close friends overwhelmed me with their kindness – I was very lucky. They put up with me cancelling plans or making them come to visit me, and managed to say the right things in the face of my catastrophising, which must have been hard. At the beginning when I told them all that I thought the cancer had spread and that the news was likely to be terrible, I paid no thought to the effect this might have on them. Fortunately they seem to have forgiven me, but I still regret it.
Being seriously ill tests you and those around you to the limit. Cancer charities acknowledge the difficulties and provide advice to patients and their partners – Maggie’s has a long list of tips and links to films of people sharing their stories about how a diagnosis affected their closest ties, while Breast Cancer Now tackles some of the concerns you might have about your physical relationship with a partner.
Sometimes the bonds won’t be strong enough to withstand the rounds of treatment, the changes in how you look and feel, or even your reaction to the whole thing.
Unless it ends your relationship, though, it’s difficult to quantify the impact. There’s not much research on cancer and separation. One study suggested that women who have suffered from the disease – or multiple sclerosis – are much more likely to be left by their partner than to leave if their male partner is diagnosed. A separate study, carried out in Germany, found that couples where there was a cancer diagnosis were less likely to split than the general population. In the second study, researchers found that cancer had an impact on new relationships formed after someone had left their partner, and continued to affect those partnerships that survived.
As with other aspects of the disease, the impact is clearly not over just because treatment has finished. The fallout – whether it’s fear, a change in what you’re capable of and/or how you look – continues, perhaps for ever. Relationships won’t be the same again. I feel that some of my bonds have been strengthened by the time I had to spend with people while I was off sick, and by my appreciation for their support, even when they saw me at my worst.
One thing that does remain unchanged, however, are my feelings about where in the dishwasher the fish slice should go. It’s in the rack with the mugs, isn’t it? Next to the small saucepan.