Cancer changes the conversation between you and your partner
Why is it so hard to talk about the future with the man I love the most? Lisa Faden asks
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Even though the two of you spend your whole life talking, it is usually about your family's plans for the day, who is eating what and what laundry needs to be done. It's almost never talking about the things that matter with the person who matters most. Even if you have spent a lifetime sharing your plans and dreams and hopes and aspirations, you may not be able to pivot to talking about life and death and the future that you never imagined would be yours.
But in July, 2016, I found a lump in my right breast during a regular self-breast exam. About a week later, after a phone call, a clinical exam and a biopsy, my family doctor confirmed that it was cancer. And a month later, after more scans and another biopsy, an oncologist confirmed that it was metastatic breast cancer – meaning incurable, Stage 4 breast cancer. It bears repeating that metastatic breast cancer is generally regarded as the only life-threatening type of breast cancer, so this discovery demanded the rapid forging of a new identity for me. I am pretty sure that my old identity is still lying dead on the floor of that little hospital room overlooking the visitor parking lot, where the oncologist told me that I would be a cancer patient for the rest of my life.
Cancer does not just happen to the patient, it happens to all of her family and friends, as well. And it happens to the partner most of all. I don't know how it happened, but they all – husband, two children, extended family and friends – decided to roll up their sleeves and support me in my time of need and crisis. I got, and continue to receive, wonderful visits from near and far, meals, rest time and all kinds of slack. I hope that I've received these gifts graciously, squelching the impulse to resist them or insist that others need them more.
Still, how do you fashion a new life and identity for yourself? When it comes to your husband, he is not your therapist or your best friend. He is the person who knows that you got up in the middle of the night and never came back to bed because you were hurting or anxious or overmedicated.
This is the same person who knows that you have to get dressed in the morning and confront the body that isn't the body that you thought you would have in your mid-40s, despite exercising religiously and eating more kale than anyone else you know.
So we go on a trip to the country. And it takes time. And it's a blessing to have someone that you can talk to. But even so, it takes time. And even when you live side by side and experience all the same things, it still takes time to find the words to share the experiences of planning, deciding, sickness, tests and doctors' visits that you are sharing.
This is the person you thought you would grow old with and who thought he would grow old with you.
This is the person who comes home to you at the end of the day when you have been reading blog posts by women who died from the same diagnosis that you have right now and who have shared and articulated your worries before you even knew that they were yours. The words of these women may haunt you and you may have to hide their effects from your children, but you will not be able to hide them from the person who knows you best and observes you most closely.
You did not get married for the "in sickness and in health" clause, but it's there in the vows anyway.
You can't just open a conversation with your life partner about disease, illness, life and death. It's a slow process of coming together and unpeeling the layers of the onion that allows you to have the actual, true, deep conversation that you need to have.
This realization is the beginning of a tradition of making the time and space to be together, and living within the same truth as your partner.
For us, it began in December, 2016, when my colleagues were kind enough to give us a weekend away together at a fancy inn and my mom was kind enough to come and take care of our two children while we were away. I made the reservation without feeling the need, or even the ability, to be in the same place as my husband for the weekend. We packed ourselves into a car with two small overnight bags and my chemo-ravaged body was barely aware enough to commit to the 90-minute drive. But once we got there, the inn was decorated in its Christmas finery and there was a fresh blanket of December snow on the ground, which we walked through on a beautiful Saturday morning. We had the most amazing meals, which we neither needed nor asked for, but enjoyed nonetheless. Our room had a fireplace. There was silence for reading, thinking and talking.
Slowly, we were able to say the words to to each other. Fears are not so difficult to talk about. It's actually harder to talk about hopes and dreams, the little things that we hope that we can do differently, the changes that we want to make to improve our lives.
Late last year, we did it again. We made a few stops to see friends, connected with the past and just spent time together. I now know that it is important just to be in the same space, with quiet and no to-do list. Mostly, I think that this is the only way to nudge our spirits into the same place at the same time, to simultaneously contemplate the questions: What is this life that we have together? Is it good? Is it what we want?
Cancer is never a good reason to have the conversation, but it is a good conversation to have.
Lisa Faden lives in London, Ont.