Cancer Survivorship and Relationships: All Hands on Deck

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Cancer survivorship can present many challenges to interpersonal and intimate relationships. In a short period, people with cancer often find out a lot about the people in their lives who support them.  Is John a task master who will coordinate all my insurance and financial stuff? Can I cry on Suzy’s shoulder? Does Henry fall off the face of the earth and not return calls/texts? How will surviving cancer impact these relationships—for better or for worse?

Relationships exist on a continuum in our lives. What we need from someone close to us ebbs and flows, based on situation, location, need and obligation. I’d like to think that relationships with our family, friends and intimate partners before, during and after cancer are supportive, lasting, and meaningful. But we know that relationships can fade or even vanish. Cancer is a stressful event. Many folks can’t handle it. Sometimes, it’s better, even though it hurts, to let those people go. In a similar vein, the context or power of the relationship may change. Someone you were “thick as thieves” with before cancer, may become a back burner friend. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t or wasn’t important. It has changed, just as we have as a result of cancer.

Each relationship in our life is unique. We give and take different things from different people. As a cancer survivor, you may take stock of these unique relationships in a different way. Who was there for you when things were REALLY bad? Who is a task master? Who makes you laugh? Who do you just want to sit and be quiet with? It’s important to know who can offer you what…and not hold the task master to overly emotional duties they may not be prepared or able to take on. Is this work for the cancer survivor? Yes. Is it fundamental to the relationship being supportive and sustainable? Absolutely. The distinctive nature of relationships in our lives is what makes them so important and so essential.

We also may find new people after cancer that we could have never expected to know. Maybe it’s the person from support group you just related to, or the other caregiver who sat long hours next to their loved one in the chemo suite and you connected over graham crackers in the snack room, or it’s the nurse who knew just what to do to make that 9 millionth needle stick bearable. Cancer bonds us to others in unpredictable, often incomprehensible ways.

We rely on those we have close relationships with to reassure us, to reminisce with us and sometimes, just be ridiculous with us. Closeness with others helps build our ability to be resilient in situations that challenge us. And sometimes, we just need to laugh–at ourselves, our situation(s), at the crazy that is OUR LIVES. I know I have a couple of those people in my life—with whom I can just be completely, unabashedly silly. This type of relationship is vital to sustaining ourselves and sometimes recognizing our imperfections.

Relationships are emotional, physical, vulnerable, fun, scary, imperfect, intense. As cancer survivors, its important to take stock of your relationships…what you are getting from them, what you need, what is challenging, what needs to change…what or maybe even, who, is left after cancer,  The same goes for those who love people who are cancer survivors. The bottom line is we need to tell each other how we feel. We need to express our fears and worries. We need to hug. We need a fit of laughter. We need to hold hands. We need to connect.  Cancer can’t, try as it might, take that away.

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