Life – but not as you knew it: Just the Two of Us

Having cancer is tough. Supporting someone with cancer can be just as difficult.  So what do you do when you’ve got to do both as a young adult?

In our latest blog, Charlotte shares her story of coping with cancer twice in four years: first, when her husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and then, a few years later, when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  It’s a rare situation but it’s not unheard of – and across Shine we know a few couples who have had to deal with a cancer double hit.  Frank and honest, we’re sure you’ll be able to relate to Charlotte’s thoughts on the changes that cancer brings.

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Charlotte and Neil

“I love you”.

When you fall in love and share those three little words with someone, life is meant to be happy and full of dreams. But there are three other words that can change your life forever. Your dreams shatter into a million pieces and vanish beyond reach. Those three words are, of course, “You have cancer”.

Any young adult with cancer would wonder what they did to deserve a potentially deadly illness at a young age, and would worry about what the future holds. But when both you and your husband have to hear those words, the world comes crashing down and is never the same again.

This is what happened to my husband and me. Neil was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009 aged 29, and had a recurrence in 2010. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013, aged 32. Neil had 6 months of ABVD chemotherapy but then went on to have further chemo, a stem cell transplant and radiotherapy. I endured an intensive course of RCODAX/M-IVAC chemotherapy, a high-dose regimen.

When you take your vows, ‘in sickness and in health’, as we did in 2007, no one expects them to be tested to the limits until you are in your late seventies, if at all. The reality of what our relationship has become, with one another as well as other people, is a far cry from what it should be at our age. On the one hand I wouldn’t have wanted to share my cancer experience with anyone else. I feel blessed to have met someone who has stood with me through my darkest days. It is great that we truly understand how each other feels and that we can fully empathise about the effects of chemotherapy. We have shared the highs and lows, laughter and cancer jokes, and cried many, many tears. However, it is not what we wanted from our relationship. We had dreams of a family, a new house and successful careers – what every young couple wants for their future. But our lives are a far cry from this and we have been left feeling like we live in a bubble, looking in on people who are living our dream.

When we told friends and family about Neil’s diagnosis it was a shock to all of them. Some tried their best to offer support while others struggled with what to say and do. One of the hardest parts for me was that, as people rallied round Neil, no one asked how I felt. I tried my hardest to be the strong one, to look after Neil and to hold down my full-time teaching job. As Neil recovered from his treatment we were unsure how to express our feelings to other people and found it easier to not contact people at all. Everyone’s life was moving on and ours was stuck on pause. Then we were hit again; when I was diagnosed, it was Neil’s turn to juggle a job and to look after me.

Disbelief is the only word I can use to describe that day. Dealing with Neil’s cancer was hard enough but, with me, people were lost for words. They couldn’t find the right words to say so they often didn’t say anything at all. To the outside world that may have felt like the best strategy but being on the receiving end made me feel alone and isolated. Some friends stuck around to offer their support while others sailed off into the distance.

We have watched friends and family get married, have children, buy new houses and new cars, get new jobs, and go on holiday. We have tried our best to share these happy moments but they have always been tinged with sadness and a bit of jealousy. Due to the side effects of our diseases and treatments we have had to make adjustments to our jobs and career plans and we can’t afford the bigger family home we were hoping for. The biggest loss for us is children. Before my diagnosis Neil and I went through IVF but were unsuccessful. Five attempts later we had to walk away empty handed, emotionally and physically strained, and our pockets full of debt.

I survived my cancer diagnosis with Neil by my side and although cancer has changed the usual elements of our relationship it has bought us closer together. Neil was there every day to share a hug when there were no words to say. We have an unbreakable bond, we hold each others’ hands tightly and we are thankful that we have each other. Our relationship is one of love and trust. With our treatments finished, now is the time to bring back some fun and sparkle into our lives. Neil and I are in this journey for the long haul. We may not be able to have the same dreams as our friends but we can make new dreams that are meaningful to us.

Charlotte lives with her husband Neil and their dog Willow.  She hangs out with the Shine crew at Shine Dorset meet ups. 

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