Jo Hilder, 44, never imagined the total devastation a cancer diagnosis could inflict on her marriage. Up until July 2003 she and her husband, Ben, had been perfectly content running a business and raising four children. But when Jo found out she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, everything changed.
Her treatment schedule meant Ben was left to run the business and raise the kids while trying to comprehend the fact he might become a widower at 33.
“Ben and I were both on anti-depressants because it was intensely anxiety-producing,” recalls Jo. “We were worrying about my future and what would happen if I died, and it brought up underlying issues in our marriage.” Tension about financial decisions, past partners and even the way Ben prepared dinner caused fights.
Seven months after being diagnosed, Jo went into remission, but it was hardly the end of their problems. Ben dealt with his stress by drinking and five years after Jo’s diagnosis, they separated.
“Cancer can be a catalyst for all sorts of changes and trauma,” says
In 2009, the couple reunited and have spent the past three years trying to get back to where they were. “It’s only in the past two years that you could say our lives resemble anything close to normal,” she adds.
Jo and Ben’s situation is hardly unusual. UK research shows that a third of cancer patients’ relationships are under enormous strain. But Gill Batt, chair of the Cancer Council Australia Supportive Care Committee, believes the number could be a lot higher. “It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that after they had cancer their relationship broke down,” she points out.
And it seems the impact of serious illness can be worse for women than men – research shows that women with cancer are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, plus we’re more likely to leave our partners.
Communication is key
Until it happens, there’s no way of forecasting how you or your partner will react to serious sickness. But according to one study, women, whether they’re the patient or the carer, tend to give better support than men. “It’s a massive generalisation, but women are a bit better at communicating and are better listeners, and try not to offer heaps of solutions,” asserts clinical psychologist Dr Cindy Nour. “Men do practical stuff well; they might be more likely to take time off or do the driving around.”
But Dr Nour believes the way your partner reacts depends more on his
personality than gender. “Some partners will go into denial and won’t do the supportive stuff, or will end up working themselves into the ground to distract themselves,” she remarks. “[Others]
will be really supportive and go to appointments, and want to know
what’s going on.”
Renza Scibilia, 38, who has type 1 diabetes, says her husband, Aaron, has been her rock through the ups and downs of her condition. She puts their relationship success down to honest communication.
“I’ve learnt I need to let him know when I’m feeling really tired or I’ve had a ‘hypo’ so he knows I’m not grumpy with him, that it’s
just a result of my diabetes,” explains Renza. “It helps him know what’s going on and takes the pressure off.”
Dr Annabel Pollard, head of clinical psychology at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, says: “Couples who are open with each other and have previously talked about things, like life, death and their sex life, may have fewer difficulties.”
The emotional fallout
Once you’ve got your head around the physical and practical impacts of a diagnosis, there are often emotional problems to contend with. A lot of serious illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, carry a high risk of depression and anxiety. “Many people are surprised and upset to find that on top of coping with
illness, they may have difficulties adjusting, or develop symptoms of anxiety or depression as well,” says Dr Pollard.
Sexual problems are another common outcome, often caused by physical changes or poor body image. In fact, 78 per cent of breast cancer patients report having less sex, according to a University of Western Sydney survey.
“[The patient] may not want to be intimate simply because they don’t like the way their body is or they’re feeling very tired,” observes Batt. “If the marriage has been a very physical one and one person is no longer feeling like being intimate, that can cause huge problems.”
To combat this, it may be worth seeing a relationship therapist to help overcome sexual barriers. “It’s a matter of trying to understand the other’s feelings and overcome embarrassment.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Annabel Pollard’s tips to keep your relationship healthy:
Admit you’re struggling: “Often people choose to say or do nothing out of fear of making things worse,” she says. “[But] the other person can interpret this as ignoring or avoiding a really important issue. Admit not knowing what to do and ask the other person what they would find most helpful.”
Take time out: It’s easy for sickness to dominate your conversations, so set aside time to watch a rom-com or read a book.
“It’s important to have a balance of pleasurable activities and conversations,” insists Pollard.
Catch up with friends: Rather than solely relying on your partner, find a friend you can confide in and suggest your partner does the same. “Everyone should have an outlet other than each other – it will be a pressure cooker otherwise,” adds Pollard.
Care for the carer: Ninety-five per cent of carers admit they put the patient’s needs ahead of their own.* “Partners often struggle on the sidelines and minimise their emotions because they feel their feelings of distress are not legitimate,” she explains.
See a psychologist: “Many people find talking with a professional is helpful,” says Pollard. “While a small proportion needs medication to help them deal with their treatment and their emotional responses.”
Make a plan: Talk about how the household will operate in this new dynamic. “Having disagreements or not knowing how to deal with things is normal. People can have unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. The only way they can resolve this is to have open communication.”