No matter who you are and what your context, cancer will change your life. We’re not being dramatic – many things change your life and push you outside your comfort zone. The thing is, cancer essentially forces you into the unknown and change, because you didn’t sign up for cancer and neither did anyone else. So let’s talk about how cancer changes your relationships – romantic ones, with friends, at home. Here are a couple things to keep in mind when traversing this new territory.
Breakups During Cancer
It’s not abnormal for relationships to end during cancer. In fact, some say 50% of relationships end because of a cancer diagnosis.The underlying reasons for this differ. Cancer often makes you aware of the temporariness of life and causes you to re-evaluate life decisions, big and small. Another element that can cause breakups is the breakdown in communication in relationships. Role changes, guilt, and other aspects can also be why.
Whatever the reason, let’s talk about how to handle a breakdown during cancer.
It isn’t about you and it’s not your fault
When someone breaks up with you, it’s really difficult to not start blaming yourself. We start picking apart our character or actions to try and find a reason for the heartbreak. However, it’s important to remember that some things happen not because of who we are or what we could’ve done differently, but because of circumstances outside our control.
By the way, this goes for those who have been diagnosed with cancer as well as non-cancer partners who are broken up with by those who are diagnosed. There is nothing you could have done to change the outcome. Cancer has the ability to change people in a variety of different ways, and that is outside of your control.
Cancer is neither person’s fault, but it is something that affects both people in the relationship, and both make a decision on – whether to face it together or separately. Life is full of challenges, and sometimes, one person or another is not prepared to, or wants to, face the challenge of cancer together. Psychologist, Dag Härdfeldt, mentioned in our conversation with him, that breakups or rejection happens because people need and want different things and can’t show up for the things that we may need or want. If your relationship ends because your partner realizes they cannot be with you because of cancer, it means that they are not equipped to support you the way you need to be supported, now or in the future.
This doesn’t take away the pain, but it does take away the blame. That helps when trying to move forward.
Respect the decision and process of the breakup and find your inner strength
First off, whether you have cancer and have broken it off with your non-cancer partner, or vice versa, it’s important to respect the decision that has been made.
Often, especially in times of uncertainty, we cling to what (read: who) we know in order to feel a sense of control over our situation. Our biological instinct is to look for and achieve safety, and when you go through cancer and a breakup, our safety net dissipates, and we experience loss.
If someone decides to walk away, let them. Love means holding someone with an open hand, giving them the freedom to choose to stay or leave. Every day is a choice, and that is the root of trust and commitment. When that commitment is broken or that trust questioned, it can be excruciating, but relationships, love, trust, these are all very hard things. The best thing that we can do for ourselves (and the world, while we’re at it) is to commit to the work of staying soft, however hurt we are.
Instead, grieve and focus on what it is you need to get back on your feet. Make sure you are open about what it is you need – whether that’s support through friendship while going through cancer or asking for some space to process your emotions and grieve your loss. Surround yourself with people and routines that honor you and your needs, and discover the inner strength to pull yourself up again.
Remember, cancer is not your fault and neither is the breakup. You were served cancer. The important part here is to remember that you are capable of going through cancer without your partner, or that your partner is capable of going through cancer without you and you will also overcome this heartbreak, however unrealistic that may feel.
Jay-Z’s grandmother, Hattie White, once said: “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
A few resources in case you want to work through cancer together
Since a cancer diagnosis is considered a family experience, it’s important to note that if both of you want to continue your relationship during cancer, ask your health professionals for help, whether they get you in touch with a therapist or counselor, or offer resources of another kind to help equip you at the onset of cancer. Make sure to check out these communication tips that can help you be a better partner – cancer or non-cancer – during and after cancer treatment.
Want to hear more about breakup during cancer from the lips of someone who’s lived through it? Read Asher’s story.
How to approach relationships growing stronger, not weaker
On the flip side of the coin, some relationships – whether romantic or platonic – grow stronger after a cancer diagnosis. This may bring a lot of joy to your life, but it may also bring up feelings of guilt, since when we feel burdened, we feel like we’re also a burden to others and question why someone still wants to walk alongside us.
Turns out, you’re not the burden. Cancer may burden you, but you are not a burden to others. And that’s why, despite your doubt or insecurity, people want to be close to you and some relationships grow closer, in spite of cancer, and perhaps even because of it. Let’s sort through the muddle of how to handle these emotions when growing closer with others during cancer.
How do I know if they really want to be there for me and don’t feel pressured to because of my cancer?
Relationships that grow closer because of cancer doesn’t mean that your friend or family member or lover or coworker or whoever didn’t care about you beforehand. One reason why the relationship may grow is because your cancer diagnosis triggered some sort of desire to show their appreciation for you in a clearer way.
In other cases, it may be that the person wants to “make the most” of the time you have left, which sounds like pity but it’s not. It’s objectively true that cancer makes people question where they’re spending their time and who they value. It means they realize how much they value you. Let them start showing it.
Other relationships, such as a romantic relationship or the one with your closest friend or parent, may grow purely because of the amount of time you spend with them now that you have cancer. Maybe you’re at home more, maybe you have a long drive to the hospital and your brother’s with you on the way there and back. It’s just like how COVID-19 brought together people in quarantine, and pushed others apart. Spending a lot of time together can create a deeper bond and comfort in each other’s presence and that’s the best reward in a difficult time.
Use your intuition – yes, you have one – to gauge the authenticity of your relationships growing stronger. Odds are, people genuinely want to be close to you and cancer has reminded them. Don’t fall victim to your doubts and insecurities, use your gut, and be grateful that you’re not alone while experiencing cancer.
Enjoy the clarity cancer brings to your friendships/relationships
We humans are masters at not wanting to be “dependent” or “needy” or whatever other toxic word that describes our completely natural desire and need to be held every once in a while.
That’s why, it’s totally normal to feel like you’re getting more than you give when a friendship grows stronger, but we’re feeling weaker. We feel guilty and then usually push away, because we don’t feel we deserve these friendships when we feel like a burden (to ourselves or to others).
However much we might feel this way, it’s critical to know that it is a narrow view of reality and false approach to living into the way we have been created. Humans are social beings and it is this aspect of us that is integral in being able to face challenges and survive. Quite literally.
Needing care does not mean being weak. Needing to process emotions, needing the presence of a loved one, feeling physically weak… none of these equate with weakness. We all need each other in some way, shape, or form.
It takes vulnerability to admit that, but you know what vulnerability requires? Bravery. You, and your loved ones that grow closer to you during your experience with cancer, are doing the best thing possible for you – coming together in a time of crisis and using your very nature in order to tackle cancer.
Listen to War On Cancer podcast episode about vulnerability and a cancer diagnosis with Dr. Martin Inderbitzen here:
Plus, now you know who truly wants to be there for you. It’s like going through your Facebook Friends and realizing which ones really matter. The silver lining is being empowered by those who’ve got your back – your tribe. There is little more touching, more humbling, more empowering than that.
If you end up realising that you may want to create a new tribe, know that there are thousands of people in the War On Cancer app, from all over the world, that can relate to everything you’ve just been through.