In December 2016, when I was asked to write a blog about how the relationships in my life were affected by my cancer diagnosis, I thought it would be a perfect topic with which to end 2016.  As the holidays came and went, all attempts to write this blog remained asleep and unenthused by my good intentions.   I then decided the blog would be a perfect introduction to 2017 and even have a few copies printed out somewhere entitled Happy New Year!  Finally, St. Valentine’s Day, the perfect time to open up a discussion on relationships and a cancer diagnosis.   At the present time, in this immediate second, the only thing that exists that could possibly become a blog, are the few words above this sentence. So the question is, what is happening to me that I am unable to write about how the relationships in my life have been affected by my cancer diagnosis?  Why is this so difficult for me?

Relationships and cancer, for better or for worse, are two things I happen to know very well. I am psychotherapist specializing in marriage and family therapy, a high school guidance counselor, a newly divorced mother of two teenage girls, a connoisseur ad nauseam of my feelings, and am presently living with my third cancer diagnosis. I should have plenty to say!  And I do have plenty to say: I live and feel it every day.  But making a written connection to my feelings would mean owning them outright and in public. To expose the dirty secrets of the mind- numbing fear that comes with the uncertainty of cancer and what it means for the people I love and who love me kept me from being able to get past the introductory paragraph of this blog!

As you can imagine, or if you are one of the lucky ones to have escaped the direct deathblow from the cancer gavel, a cancer diagnosis alone has the ability to turn a life upside down, a family jaggedly sideways, and a romance/spouse/partnership inside out.  Life is hard enough without cancer, but add cancer to mix and a plethora of struggles unfurls.  As most of you are aware, when struggle ensues, we can either complain and make it worse, or face it head on, think positive and find the grace in the lesson to be learned. I call it making lemonade with life’s lemons.  I should mention here that making lemonade is something I do well, and always have. I do not in any way, however, ignore or trivialize anyone’s struggle. I am plagued with my own on a daily basis and, if at times, my positivity gets gross, I assure you it is usually coupled with a negative thought or feeling.  I have learned to just choose, for the most part, to always see the light, to find the lesson, to feel the gratitude and live the blessings.

Three-and-a-half years ago, as I sat in my doctor’s office while he explained my CLL diagnosis—and as his hard words slapped the breath from my body—my first thoughts were about the relationships in my life:  1) my girls would not have a mother; and, 2) my 16-year relationship with my husband needed to change or possibly end.  The first needs no explaining.  The latter does not differ much from other stories you have read or heard about failing marriages: lack of respect, communication, etc., with the slight exception that my new diagnosis gave strength to my feelings of unhappiness and added the element of time (or what I perceived to be a lack thereof) to my next steps.

I should mention here, that at the precise moment of my new life with CLL, I wasn’t exactly clear that I wanted to be happy or even that I deserved to be, but I did know I wasn’t happy and that I didn’t want to be sick and unhappy at the same time.  There is a difference. I didn’t jump off the doctor’s table and shout into the air, “I want to be happy!”  Rather, I had allowed myself to feel the bright light in my gut screaming up at me “It’s time to make a change!”  The whole thought of being sick and needing treatment, in my current relationship, made me feel sad, lonely and helpless. The relationship sucked the energy force from my body, and, on a good day, without any CLL symptoms, I was exhausted and hopeless.  But the opposite of being in the relationship I was in, was to be alone…….WOAH.  The thought of that was worse than the thought of staying unhappy.  It’s one thing to want to be happy; it’s another thing to believe you deserve happiness and quite another to do what needs to be done to make happiness happen.  So what started as a reevaluation of the relationship in my life soon turned back into the journey to me.

I knew beyond a shadow of a whisper, that in order to survive the uncertainty of not only my cancer but of the havoc it was beginning to have on my body and my emotions, I needed to love myself enough to know I deserved to be happy. This is easy to write and easier to say, but I promise, it is not an easy thing to feel at the core gut level.  To me, the very word “cancer” translates to sick, which translates to being bad, flawed and broken—and I felt very flawed and entirely broken.  My first two cancers were burden enough for my marriage, and I faced them alone (with the exception of friends and family). But there is a certain unspoken need for your spouse or partner to join you during your time in the “in sickness” part of the journey, and my experience only included solo missions.  Step one of loving myself would mean letting go of someone that could only participate when they found it convenient. To date, I am still unclear if it was leaving my husband or choosing to love myself that proved to be most difficult of all.  I suspect it was the jump, the leap, the surrender to myself, and giving myself permission to be happy just because I deserved to be happy without explanation or excuse.

I remember an appointment I had with my oncologists shortly after my diagnosis when, for some reason, I felt the need or thought he wanted to hear about, all of the changes I was making in my life now that I had cancer. I started, in my entitled “I have cancer voice,” numbering off all of my changes. In retrospect, I think I was trying to impress him and let him know I would not fall quietly into the cancer abyss; that I would change the world, change myself, make a difference and be remembered. I was so afraid of dying, so afraid of fading away, that I was in a high, intense fight mode to not only stay alive but to make my life worthwhile.  I thought he would be impressed. I was impressed with myself—or so I thought. But he simply looked at me, with an all-knowing gentleness and said, “You don’t need an excuse to be happy.” I felt like a fool. Why didn’t I know that? Why did I need cancer to show me this?

As didactic as this may sound, I truly believe the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and love ourselves is the single most profound and important relationship we will ever have.  Cancer or no cancer, there is no single being that can feed us from the inside that which we need to survive: love, acceptance, fairness, empathy and respect for every cell in our body. It is the way we heal ourselves. I just recently, after 16 years of dealing with cancer, have started asking friends or family to join me at my doctor visits—for the company, for the lunch afterwards, or for reiteration of information that, admittedly, oftentimes falls on deaf ears. As small as it may seem to some of you, asking for help or company is one of the ways I am taking care of myself and loving myself. It is one of the ways I will heal.

I have often said that my CLL has been a blessing.  There is even a blog on Patient Power where I wrote about it.  I truly believe that even though the tides of change had been brewing for sometime, it was my diagnosis and the immediate response it had to the relationships in my life that were the impetus to reclaiming the most important relationship in my life.  Loving myself, caring for myself, being good to myself, listening to myself is proving to be the best lesson I can give my girls. And as I heal and deal and live, they too will get more of me.  As a mother, there is no better gift I can give them. And as a woman with a chronic cancer, there is no better way to not only survive, but to thrive

Grateful, thankful, blessed for today, tomorrow and the next!

Jennifer Z.

 

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