I’ve spent a long time telling my own story and the effect my cancer diagnosis has had on me, I haven’t spoken too much about the effect it has had on those around me. This week I wanted to talk about how it affected my girlfriend and some the real difficulties it caused.
Sometimes if I want to try and understand what’s going on with someone, I just put myself in their shoes and look at things from their perspective, and well this is something I really didn’t want to think about in the case of my girlfriend but once I had enough energy to do it, it’s exactly what I did.
She has been through absolute hell with my diagnosis. We were only together 6 months when I was diagnosed with cancer, the butterfly period of our relationship was quickly and harshly ripped from under our feet. Lying in bed on chemotherapy with your girlfriend by your side as a nurse asks you how many times you’ve opened your bowels that day is definitely a mood killer, bye bye dignity. When it all kicked off she had to take quite a bit of time off work, sure how could you not, it was an awful situation to be in. The fit and healthy marathon runner boyfriend she was dating wasn’t as healthy as it seemed. We were unbelievably close after our first 6 months of dating, we had fallen in love, moved in together, but still, after just 6 months of dating and for them to be diagnosed with cancer, it must have been a thinker.
One of the things we never did while I was going through my treatment or my recovery was to actually talk or open up about what was going on, or how scared we were, or how difficult it was, we only focused on getting through the treatment and getting past it, we never faced up to possibilities or discussed our worries. It was something that would come back to hurt us later in our relationship.
Niamh was trying to be strong for me and of course I was trying to keep positive for her, but all my energy was focused on getting through the treatment and then the recovery so it was hard to be there for her for quite a long time, I guess in a way I was putting myself first and wasn’t able to be there for her or anyone else for that matter but myself.
So who was looking after my girlfriend? Yes she has amazing family and friends but it’s not the same, it’s not enough, you also need your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/wife/husband when going through something so horrific, that closeness, that companionship, but I was down and out. That’s really tough on her, and because she was being strong for me to help me get through it, she could never really open up to me about how she was feeling or how it was affecting her, and that’s tough. Se didn’t have me to talk to or cry to, or break down to. How could she sit by my side as I lay in bed getting chemotherapy and tell me about how she’s had a tough day at home or at work, or that she couldn’t sleep because of what was going on, or how upset she was, normal stuff, she couldn’t. I get that.
Nobody can prepare you for being told you have cancer, or what follows, or how it affects you, or relationships, marriages, families, friendships. I can now clearly see how cancer could perhaps destroy or end a relationship, or even a marriage, what it can do to a couple, the pressure it puts on people, physically, mentally, financially, you just can’t prepare for all of that. In a way I count ourselves lucky that we didn’t have our own family because I couldn’t imagine the extra difficulties that it would have caused.
I’ll always remember her saying to me that it didn’t make sense, she couldn’t understand it, I looked so healthy, I seemed so fit, but the chemotherapy was taking that away from me. I don’t think I understood it either. It was an invisible disease that we couldn’t see and she just watched the chemotherapy making me ill! It was taking my hair away, my energy, my body shape, my appetite, my independence, everything, it was making me feel awful. We had to understand that despite how well I looked, the truth of the matter was that I was incredibly ill. The chemotherapy was so heavy going it was making me worse before it made me better, she had to watch me deteriorate fairly rapidly and disappear in to a quiet, motionless state of being. I can now picture what she was looking at as she sat by my bedside, it’s not a nice thought.
She took a lot of time off work to be by my bedside, to help look after me, how could you work through a time like that I don’t know, but after a period of time she did return to work, and I am so proud of her for that.
After I got the all clear and discharged from hospital at the end of April 2016 it was time to recover and try to reignite our relationship, but the recovery was tough, the fatigue was tough. During both the treatment and the recovery we tried to keep up our date nights, watching a movie or going out for dinner or even the odd night away, it was really important to keep doing that, but it was tough going all the same. We took a trip that November, November 2016, just before I was due to return to work. It was a dream 3 week trip that we took to put the nightmare behind us and it was an amazing trip, absolutely amazing, a new start, but just days after returning home I relapsed. What did we do to deserve this horror!
Our relationship had barely gotten back on track due to the long recovery process, and now a relapse, 9 months after the all clear, it was scary, my chances weren’t looking too good either. We didn’t even have time to process it, we were in utter such shock because we had been assured by my specialist that I was good to go after beating it the first time! The treatment followed, then the bone marrow transplant, Niamh had to take more time off work I could see how much harder it was hitting her this time around.
When I was discharged following the bone marrow transplant I had to be within 20 minutes of hospital at all times so I couldn’t return home and so I lived in her family home. I also had to nominate a carer and Niamh said she would do it, so for quite a while she was more my carer than my girlfriend, keeping an eye on me, giving me my injections, changing my bandages, disinfecting the house daily, it’s not quite the relationship a girl dreams of, but she did it, and amazingly well too. I could really see how physically and mentally tired she was, she was absolutely drained, not because of having to help out with me a bit, but just due to the severe stress of everything, it was taking it’s toll on her and it showed.
Thankfully we got the all clear but the recovery was much harder this time, she had to watch me go through it all again. It hit me harder physically going through everything again but it hit or relationship even harder because we hadn’t really recovered from the first episode, I will never forget when we were trying to make light of the situation we were in and she pointed out that we hadn’t even been dating 2 years and I had been diagnosed with cancer twice in that time, it was the painful truth, we somehow managed to laugh about it as I stood my ground telling her that I was worth it. If you can imagine now we have been together 3.5 years but for 3 of those years I have been sick, it’s been a 3 year battle, that’s tough going, it’s not fair.
The isolation aspect of it was awful too, especially over the winter, with no immune system it meant that anytime I was sick or she was sick we couldn’t be anywhere near each other, no kissing, no being in the same room, no holding hands, no date night, nothing, that was tough so needless to say last winter was a long winter, too long.
Our relationship struggled a lot through the last recovery, the winter didn’t help, things were bad between us, not bad, difficult, we came to realise that all those thoughts, worries, fears that were swept under the carpet through my first diagnosis were never dealt with or rationalised, so it had built up in us both and it all came out. We realised we never had a chance to let the anger of what happened out. I was going to speak to someone, so was she, it was hard, things just weren’t clicking. No matter how tough it was I just kept telling myself that we are meant to be together, and we will be together, and that when my body and mind recover it will come good between us, and it did.
The fatigue the treatment caused me was horrendous, I was too tired to talk, to listen, to communicate, and at a time where she needed to let all the anger and upset out, I wasn’t there, or when she just wanted to tell me about her day, I wasn’t there, or to tell me about the annoying drive home, the simple stuff, and I wasn’t there, but that simple stuff is so important, it’s normality, it’s our everyday! I just wasn’t there for such a long time, and I can’t imagine how tough that was for her, I was sitting there but my mind was lost.
To have stood by me for the last three years, to have watched me fade away for so long, to have lost me for so long, twice, that was tough. To not be able to talk to me, communicate, or have me really listen to her, that was tough. The one person she wanted to talk to the most was metaphorically not home, and it took such a long time for it to get better, but now it has greatly improved, I’m a lot better, she can tell me about her day, about the simple stuff, complain, laugh, communicate, but now I’m finally able to respond.
I saw how hard this whole situation was for her, how much it took it out of her both mentally and physically, how draining it was, but now she has fought back, back to daily life, work, walking, zumba, exercising, the normal stuff, and things are great! She is no longer my carer, she is my girlfriend.
Just a few weeks ago I told her that for the first time in such a long time I was actually happy, things were good, I was content, and the next morning she realised that so was she, and that was huge for me to hear that. To see your girlfriend struggling, drained, and just unhappy for so long is very tough, very tough, so I felt a huge weight off my shoulders. Now I am able to listen better, talk more, the brain fog finally lifting, and now I love to listen to her, because I’m able, to listen to what she has to tell me about her day, and what she’s been doing, and to finally be able to moan about first world problems like the traffic or the weather, not about cancer related problems.
She turned to me recently and said she has never met anyone so motivated, so determined as me, and told me how proud she was of me, how proud she was of how I battled and dealt with what happened, and that I’m still so motivated after it, after all I’ve been through, to get my life back on track and to return to running. Needless to say I felt proud after hearing that.
I don’t know how we got through it, but we did, it says a lot about our relationship, and surely if we can get through something like that we can get through anything. We have learned now to just say when we are worried, or angry, or annoyed, or scared, we just say it how it is, she has her moments and I have mine too, but at the end of the day we know it’s not each other, it’s a result of the diagnosis, it didn’t beat me and it wasn’t going to beat us.
I feel very lucky to still have her in my life, that she stuck by me, and for our relationship to not only have survived the last few years of absolute horror, but for it to be strong again, and most importantly to be back dating and to have rekindled that butterfly feeling. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, but she must be just plain crazy because she still maintains that she’s the lucky one, all I know is that I’m very proud of her, and I’m incredibly grateful to be here so that I can still take her out on date night.
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