A breast cancer diagnosis can shake even the strongest of relationships. But from the moment I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew my husband would be there through it all.
My husband and I stood face-to-face before the altar, filled with joyous anticipation. Hands clasped and eyes locked, with the kind of goofy grins worn by those ridiculously in love, we took our marital vows as our family and friends watched on from the pews below.
As we promised to stand by each other in sickness and in health, I never dreamed those vows would be tested so soon after our wedding.
Less than 5 years later, we sat in stiff chairs in my oncologist’s office, hands once again clasped. As the doctor explained my diagnosis — stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma with a BRCA2 gene mutation — I felt my husband squeeze my hand.
He knew how terrified I felt at that moment — he was fearful, too. But with that hand grasp, I knew I wouldn’t have to face all that lay ahead alone.
A health crisis such as cancer can shake even the strongest of relationships. The stress and fear of a life threatening diagnosis, not to mention months of often grueling treatment, can weigh heavy on a couple. And the body image issues that come along with chemo hair loss, mastectomy, and radiation can make it difficult to feel comfortable connecting with your partner in a physical way.
But cancer can strengthen a bond, too.
As I embarked on my treatment regimen, I faced a daunting schedule that included multiple rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction surgery, and a preventive oophorectomy to reduce my elevated risk of ovarian cancer due to my BRCA mutation. But from the moment I received the news, my husband assured me that he would be by my side through it all.
The stress and fear of a life threatening diagnosis, not to mention months of often grueling treatment, can weigh heavy on a couple.
Not long after my second doxorubicin/cyclophosphamide (Adriamycin/Cytoxan) infusion, I made the horrifying realization that a bald spot had formed along my part. Though I’d initially planned on going to my hairstylist for a shave once my hair started to fall out, I knew I couldn’t wait. So, my husband volunteered to shave my head.
As he gently grazed the clippers across my scalp, my precious locks fluttering into heaps on the floor around us, I felt grateful to be able to experience this difficult moment in the privacy of my home.
While in the hospital following my bilateral mastectomy, nurses emptied the fluid that drained from the thin tubes snaking out of each side of my torso.
Twice daily, they would open the cap on the bulbs attached to the tubes and squeeze the fluid into a measuring cup, monitoring any changes in output. As I healed, the fluid amount would taper, and once I reached a certain point, the drains I hated so much could finally be removed.
With my discharge papers, I got my own measuring cup and a chart to record my fluid measurements in the morning and evening. When we first got home, I was in no shape to do this myself, so my husband offered to empty my drains. He works in the medical field and has had jobs at nursing homes, so I figured he could perform the task without getting too grossed out.
Each morning and evening, we convened in the bathroom, where I would open my Velcro-closure postsurgery tank top so he could access my drains. Meticulously and without complaining, he would squeeze the tubes and empty the fluid into the measuring cup. I’d record the amount on the chart. As we completed this decidedly unromantic task together, I didn’t need him to speak the words to know how much he loved me.
After surgery and chemo, my body looked and felt foreign to me. Though my surgeons did a great job with what they had, my reconstructed breasts were a far cry from what I’d had before surgery.
I began gaining weight, as the double-whammy of tamoxifen and oophorectomy-induced menopause tanked my metabolism.
With open lines of communication and a willingness to express those emotions to each other, my husband and I were able to come through that trial with our relationship stronger than ever.
And though I was grateful my hair had begun growing again, the wild tangle of chemo curls sprouting from my head often left me frustrated and disappointed — this hair wasn’t my hair.
Throughout the process of treatment and after, my self-image took a major hit. Yet, my husband never ceased to make me feel beautiful and desired. In his eyes, I was still the same woman he fell in love with before cancer rocked our world.
Facing a catastrophic health event such as cancer is difficult for both members of a couple. For the sick person, facing the fear and the physical demands of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be overwhelming and debilitating. And the partner who serves as a caretaker often experiences many of those same feelings of fear and anxiety, along with a sense of helplessness that they can’t fix what’s wrong with their loved one. On top of that, their feelings can feel secondary to those of the person who’s actually sick.
But with open lines of communication and a willingness to express those emotions to each other, my husband and I were able to come through that trial with our relationship stronger than ever.
Though we never would’ve chosen to go through something as terrifying as cancer, the experience made us realize how much we truly love each other and what an important role we play in each other’s lives. And though I already knew he was on my team, seeing my husband step up in such a selfless way to help me through cancer made me realize no matter what happens in our future, we will face it together.
Medically reviewed on February 27, 2023
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