Friday 9 April 2021

Effects of breast cancer on our partners and how we are affected by their coping strategies: BRiC's Collective Voice

The focus of a recent Sunday discussion topic allowed us to explore and discuss the effects of our breast cancer diagnosis on our partners and how we are affected by their coping strategies. A diagnosis of breast cancer is a hugely physical, mental, and emotional challenge; surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and other breast cancer drug treatments can stretch us to our limits of coping. With that shared understanding of the challenges that breast cancer presents to us, Sunday night’s discussion provided an opportunity to look at how our partners’ coping strategies impact us. Partners’ ability to cope and our response to that are inextricably linked as our conversation highlighted.

There were several common themes that emerged from the discussion. These ranged from partners’ coping strategies that included their ability to be fully supportive on both a practical and emotional level, partners whose support extended to a practical level only, and several examples of a total absence of any kind of support which included one of our group members whose partner was present for a week following her diagnosis but who, after that early stage of diagnosis, had not been seen since.
Many of our group members were able to give examples of how partners attended hospital appointments with them whilst some reported that their own personal desire to be independent and strong and, in a way to protect their partners, saw them attending hospital appointments and treatment sessions alone. This, however, led to a realisation in one case about how that had alienated her partner. One member poignantly explained that her partner ‘didn’t attend any appointments’ and ‘never has and doubt ever will, support me emotionally.'

There were examples of partners’ behaviour being less than supportive. One of our group members was described as ‘lazy and milking it’ by her partner. Another described her breast diagnosis as triggering jealousy on his part leading to a faked suicide attempt. Both relationships ended because of wholly unacceptable behaviour on the partner’s part.

There were several examples of partners being fully and totally supportive which included the ability to talk and acknowledge our emotional needs. However, there was a wide range of experiences and personal accounts that highlighted the inability of many of our partners to provide emotional support. Often partners’ views included an inability to understand the need to talk about the breast cancer once active treatment had finished with an attitude of ‘Why? It’s over now,’ along with an approach that included a lack of understanding of late effects of treatment with one member describing how ‘the instant it finished he expected me to be better.’

Thoughts were expressed around the worry and concern that some of us feel that we have caused our partners with support coming from other group members that served to remind us all that we are not to blame for how our breast cancer diagnosis has made our partners feel. Emotions like guilt and anger were described in relation to how our partners’ strategy for coping in response to our breast cancer diagnosis manifested itself.

In some cases, support that was evident in the beginning waned over time resulting in partners becoming depressed and one experiencing a breakdown. Our discussion highlighted the need for professional support to be available for our partners so that were aren't left carrying the burden of their emotional needs along with our already challenged emotional mechanisms.

The importance of our partners being able to talk openly and freely with us about their feelings around our breast cancer is clear but it seems that there are so many of our partners that are unable to share how they are feeling emotionally, sometimes for fear of upsetting us whilst in other examples, it’s clear that they don’t want to talk about or discuss the topic.

Our ability to cope is enhanced or otherwise, by the level of practical and emotional support shown to us by our partners. This was a recurring theme that highlights, and especially if our partners are male, that expressing emotions can be challenging. One of our members described her ‘emotional recovery as something I have to very much deal with on my own.' The view that there’s a need to closely examine how young males are raised so that they are much better placed to express their emotions and fears was raised by one of our members with a reference to how ‘suicide figures bear this out.'

The experiences described within our group are broad and diverse and although we are individual in the way that we respond to our breast cancer diagnosis, we share the need to be able to talk about how our diagnosis affects us, especially with our partners. There is an expectation that we should be fully supported emotionally and sadly this is often lacking. However, an example highlighted from one of our members whose partner had experienced a cancer diagnosis himself showed that personal experience of the disease led to a better understanding. Another of our members who recently experienced the agonising personal turmoil of watching her father deteriorate in the lead up to his death expressed that ‘sense of powerlessness that’s so hard to bear’, which helped to put into perspective somewhat the viewpoint of some of our partners’ experiences.

We acknowledge as a group that our voices need to be heard, alongside a level of empathy and understanding from our partners about the fears of reoccurrence and late and on-going effects of breast cancer treatment. Many of our partners seem able to cling to their fears by not expressing how they feel. Support in the form of counselling or other talking therapies has in several members’ experiences been hugely helpful. NHS provision of that kind of support, as a standard package of care, and as a readily available option for partners from the beginning of our breast cancer diagnosis might be helpful in supporting emotional recovery following our breast cancer diagnosis, enhancing our resilience and coping mechanisms.

Thank you to all of our group members who participated in this rich discussion to highlight our points of view on this topic.

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