Relationships through the cancer prism
IMAGE: ALINA DANIKER | UNSPLASHImage: Nathan Dumlao | UnsplashRelationships are curious things; and they get a massive kick in the guts when you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness. Relationships bear the brunt of the shock, fear, overwhelm and uncertainty.
by Veronica Leonardo
A chronic illness diagnosis is nothing short of devastating – for the person receiving the diagnosis, and for their nearest and dearest.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of relationships I think of external relationships. Amazingly, the most important relationship – the one with ourselves – is not one most of us tend to dedicate time to.
When you think you have it all figured outMy first awakening with my introspective relationship came when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty!

Forty is an age when we hope to have all our shit together, and I certainly thought that I had – doing all the things at a million miles an hour. In a rush to get to I don’t know where now… The curse of the modern age – living busily, at breakneck speed, always with an eye on the future.

Well it all came to a screeching halt when my cancer diagnosis was given. You fast go into a very lonely world, looking deeply inwards because, for all the external support you’re given, the answers to your journey are within.

Personally, I found a reserve of resilience, self-belief, and strength I never knew I had. When you encounter your mortality you instantly develop a laser sharp focus on survival. All the trivial things that used to occupy your mind are gone – poof! Like magic. All gone, replaced with an intrinsic connection to your needs. Let’s face it; when it’s a matter of life and death, your priorities are easy to focus on – and you will try to do whatever it takes to get you back to health and intentional living.

Once I was through the shock of my diagnosis and my initial surgery, I found the six months of chemo treatment, and even the period of radiation treatment, very cathartic.

I used it as an opportunity for a time of introspection because I wanted to make my ‘second chance’ count. That drive to ‘make it count’ is still with me 5.5 years in remission… I can’t see it ever leaving me.
You and everyone elseThe person we are at the beginning of a cancer journey, is not the same person that will emerge as the journey progresses. This is neither a positive nor a negative. I have learnt not to judge it. It’s too fundamental an experience not to change one.
  
This is the primary reason our relationships are then under the microscope. Because we ourselves, in many ways, are so fundamentally different.

There have been some beautiful friendships born out of this challenging period of my life. Some existing friendships have changed. There’s no doubt about that. Some people weren’t there for me the way I had hoped they would have been. For my part, I possibly could have been better at asking for more presence, but then again, I had a sh*t load going on. So, I’m certainly not hard on myself for it. I have let those friendships evolve as they need to in my post-cancer life, and I don’t judge it. The new friendships are rich in authenticity and that’s what matters the most to me.

On the flip side, there were friends and relatives that were there for me in ways I wouldn’t have expected. It’s always funny when the people you least expect are the ones to openly face you and ask you what you need.
Back to ‘normal’During these very challenging COVID lockdowns many are sensing an urgency to “get back to normal”. I certainly felt that from many people when I was unwell. Once chemo was over and my hair started growing back, people said “let’s put it behind us”, and were keen to get back to normal life…whatever that is.

I felt this placed incredible pressure on me. I was only just starting to process it all. Wondering what I WANTED my life to look like beyond cancer. To me, going back to normal life didn’t feel like the best option – not one that was going to serve me. What would be the point of going back to a lifestyle that I felt could’ve potentially contributed to my illness?

Don’t get me wrong, eventually you do go back to somewhat of a normal life, but if you give it a chance, it’s a life that is full of authentic connections. Fulfilment. Purpose. And your bullshit radar is sharpened to the nth degree!

Subsequently, this often means having to set some serious boundaries on what is right for you in your survivorship life, which can lead to awkward and even intense conversations. People don’t generally like hearing the word NO. However, another tool you can gain from a chronic illness experience is the skill to back yourself. You are important, you are valuable, and you are worthy of what supports you!
Image: Valerie Blanchett | UnsplashRelationships and our bodiesThe relationship with my body had always been one of feeling somewhat detached. I never felt fully comfortable in it. It went far beyond the awkward teenage years, and well into my adult life.

Always too short. Never attractive enough. Weirdly skinny feet. Veiny legs. Hair too wavy… and the list went on.
My way of being and feeling completely changed after my diagnosis. My entire cancer journey has been just as much of an emotional growth as it has been a lesson in appreciation of my physical being.

I always exercised – not so much for the physical benefits, but much more for the emotional and mental health benefits I get from it. I’m on a natural high after exercise and I love it. The physical benefits merely a bonus.
  
I will be eternally grateful for the incredible things my body got through – nothing short of a spiritual experience. From extensive treatment to a multitude of surgeries endured and crawled through to now gifting me the ability to get back to a healthy and fit physical being.

The scars are the bookmarks to my story. Now my body talks to me and I talk to it. It’s by no means smooth sailing, every day it takes effort and awareness. When I stress, or don’t exercise regularly enough, or don’t eat as well as I should, I feel an awfully deep sense of betrayal. It’s a real lived relationship, and the most important relationship of all, I feel.
"Life beyond a chronic illness is an ongoing opportunity to continue to nurture, build, and grow the right relationships."Life beyond a chronic illness – another revelation awaitsMy oncologist once told me that once active treatment finished that’s when the real party would begin, and his wisdom certainly did not fail.

Life beyond a chronic illness is an ongoing opportunity to continue to nurture, build, and grow the right relationships. We relearn to manage the external relationships, and the factors that continue to impact those relationships. And, perhaps most importantly, we can build our own introspective relationship.

If nothing else, COVID has gifted more of us the time and opportunity to have a good look at our interpersonal relationships – and we may be surprised by what we find.
About the author:
Veronica, mindset coach and mentor, is from Sydney, and is a cancer survivor and advocate. Now in remission, Veronica was diagnosed at 40 years of age. Her advice is early detection matters; please see your doctor if you notice any changes in your body or health.  www.veronicaleonardo.com

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