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Acknowledge your energy battle, and let your partner know
The stress of coping with Covid has caused a surge of calls to mental health support lines and strained many relationships to breaking point. That's not dissimilar to what happens case by case when one of a couple has cancer.
Fear and anxiety burn people out, and how they respond to their burn-out can be misinterpreted by those who would like to help them.
The fact is that not everyone wants help, at least not the kind of help that well-meaning others may want to give. The difference in needs creates tension which adds to the stress and ultimately makes things worse.
After cancer, my wife left me
I know because I have had two primary - potentially lethal - cancers. The first one required a five-hour operation, and seven months later, my marriage of sixteen years broke down. The cancer wasn't the sole cause, but it was a significant catalyst.
It was clear that my wife was distressed by my behaviour during the diagnosis, operation and recovery from the cancer.
To be honest, I had no idea why she was distressed. After all, I was the one who was told I would be dead in 5 years, and I was the one who needed to make life or death decisions about the treatment options.
I was keeping the burden on my shoulders, to protect her from participating in a wrong decision. That's how I saw it. I eventually found out that it was not how she saw it.
When you first find out
Let me tell you what happens when you get a call at 9am the day after a biopsy for cancer. The first thing that races through your mind is "why is the doctor calling when he told me he'd call in 2 or 3 days?". You are already sweating - literally.
"You need to have this treated as soon as possible", says the doctor. What does that mean, I ask? "An operation". Do you mean everything has to be cut out? "Yes". What does that mean? "You need to come to see me". Do you do it, or do I see someone else? "I can do it. You can also get a second opinion". Are there any other possible treatments; having everything cut out doesn't sound too good? "Yes, radiation treatment, you need to see a radiation oncologist". How do I find one of those? "I will send you a name". Can I have radiation treatment and if it does not work have surgery? "No, surgery is not possible after the radiation treatment". Oh. What happens if the radiation treatment doesn't work? "There are no further ways to stop the cancer, but we can give you hormones which may help you live a little longer and reduce the pain". And if I don't do anything? "With your specific type of this cancer you could expect to live for another five years". Oh. OK, I when can I see you.
This is what happens: your heart is racing, you are sweating, you don't remember half of what the doctor told you, you know that you could be dead, and you know that your life will never be the same. You also don't know what you'll do about your job, when you will work again, or if you will be able to work again.
Sound familiar? It's like living in the pandemic.
Your energy battle starts - there's none left
Here is my message. From this point on, you are in an energy management battle.
I was incredibly fit - my body age was 20 years younger than 65. But I was drained of energy every day managing the decisions, working up to the morning of the operation, recovering, getting back to work ASAP, getting moving again, and rigorously following the rehabilitation instructions and exercises.
In the initial decision-making stages I had no energy left to engage others in the choice of treatment options. In recovery, I could only work, exercise, eat and go to bed. It was more exhausting when people wanted to help or be involved.
We had a $20,000 debt and I worked for myself. Not working — no income.
I initially started work still with a catheter in place. I was totally incontinent. Then I started attending client meetings with spare 2,000ml pads in my briefcase. Knowing when and how to excuse myself so I that could dash to the restroom before a swamp gushed between my legs was top of mind.
I lived in fear of staining my suit and then what would I do? I also discovered that men’s restrooms don’t cater for pad disposal, and it’s embarrassing trying to figure out what to do with your used one as others are washing their hands.
The stress from this burnt a huge amount of energy.
I didn't need help. I just needed to be able to rest and recover at the end of each day.
There was noone that could do my work, change my pads, make me continent again, give me more energy. It's exactly the same as getting fit - only you can do it for yourself.
I came to understand why she left
A year after my wife left, I had my excess energy back, and I recalled something she had said to me. She had told me that she could not stand the way that I had cut her out, had not let her be part of the process, and had shrunk into myself.
In my recovered state, I had the energy to empathise with her feelings. She was right. To keep myself afloat, I had to consume all my daily energy. Nothing was left except to go through the motions of living together.
I don't regret how I coped.
Here's what I would do now
What I would change if there were a next time - and with Covid there is a now time - is to explain to my partner that there will be times that I need all my energy just to keep myself sane.
At those times:
Know your energy management preferences
My idea of resilience is like running 10km - you keep putting one step in front of the other. In the end, as long as you don't run out of energy, you'll get there. There may be some deviations along the way, but hopefully, with good communication, you'll share the achievement.
Think about how you manage your energy and how others can help and how they might hinder. Let them know your preferences, and ask what they need from you. Balance their needs against your own energy capacity, and arrange help for them if your capacity is exceeded.
Recognising that your energy is limited, and without taking care of yourself that you are of no use to anyone, is the first step in surviving the stress of COVID.
My story has a happy ending. Although I was diagnosed with another primary and potentially lethal cancer 3 years after the first, I survived to eventually reunite with my wife and daughter after 4 years.
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