During Breast Cancer Awareness month the charity Breast Cancer Care is focussing on how a diagnosis can impact on relationships. Two women tell Charlotte Haigh MacNeil how breast cancer affected theirs
‘I was terrified cancer would return while Tim wanted to look to the future ‘
Dani Binnington, 37, works part-time in a health shop. She lives in Thames Ditton, Surrey, with her husband Tim, a commercial director and their three daughters aged 7 and twins aged 5.
I found the lump while watching TV one evening. I was only 33 so my GP thought it was a cyst, but I had a biopsy to be on the safe side. When the doctor said it was cancer, I was shattered. Fortunately, it hadn’t spread. But during chemo my hair fell out, I lost my eyelashes and I had spots all over my neck. I wore a wig and make-up and though Tim told me I looked lovely, I didn’t feel it. I just wanted my hair back. We continued to make love, even during treatment, because we felt it would keep us close.
The hardest time was once chemo and radiotherapy was over. I hated having to just wait and see whether the cancer would come back. I tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, which raises risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and that made me feel really low. I was trying so hard to recover from the cancer I’d already had and then had to get my head around preventing more cancers in the future. It was awful to think my girls might carry the mutation, too. I went to a dark place. At each three-monthly appointment, I was told there was no recurrence but I had aches and pains, which I now think were psychosomatic because I was so scared. I kept telling Tim the cancer had spread but he stayed calm and told me we should deal with the facts, not “what ifs”. He wanted to book a family holiday to Thailand and I was terrified I wouldn’t make the trip. But Tim was adamant we needed to create new, happy memories. I’m grateful he persuaded me. The whole holiday I kept thinking, “I’m here, I can’t believe it.”
When my mother in law took me to my first yoga class I was worried my wig would slip off but the stretching felt incredible good. It helped me trust my body again and that made me feel more sensual, even sexy. I started researching healthy eating too – it was empowering to think I could help to keep myself well. Tim was relieved I’d found something that made me feel more positive. He bought me yoga pants and encouraged me to go on a yoga holiday to Goa without him.
Due to my risk of having new breast cancers, I chose to have a double mastectomy two years after my diagnosis. I wanted to be around for my girls as long as possible. I had a reconstruction, using implants, at the same time as the mastectomy. Before the bandages came off, I decided I was going to like my new breasts. The hardest thing was getting used to how they felt. There’s no sensation in them so Tim and I weren’t even sure whether to make them part of our intimate life – but now they’re just another part of my body.
By the time I had the surgery I was very into my healthy lifestyle and in fact checked myself out of hospital the next day so I could recover at home with green juices. Tim has been so supportive of my new way of eating, although the first time I made courgette spaghetti, he ordered a takeaway. My new lifestyle inspired me to get a job in a health food shop and I’ve now started up healthy supper clubs (healthywholeme.com). I’ve still not had the all-clear and am now planning surgery to remove my ovaries because ovarian cancer is a risk too , so the journey continues. But I feel lucky and try not to worry about the future. I have so much respect for Tim – his love, patience and optimism pulled us through.’
‘It was tough when Dani thought she had life-threatening illnesses after treatment was over. I had to let her get checked out to put her mind at rest but I had been looking forward to her treatment ending so we could go back to normal. I wanted it all to be over but it wasn’t.
There were times when my mind wasn’t on daily life. Once, a woman came up to me in a shop and asked if I was alright because I had been standing there for 45 minutes. I tried to stay upbeat for Dani but it wasn’t always easy, so I went for counselling at the Butterfly Centre at Epsom Hospital, a service that provides emotional support for people with cancer and their family members. One thing the counsellor said was that we can only deal with what is now – that helped me a lot.
Dani is a strong, beautiful woman and we’ve always been good together but we’ll never have the life we had before. That’s okay, though. We appreciate every day and we don’t put off doing the things we want to do.’
‘I was blindsided by how breast cancer affected us’
Kerry Allison, 42, is a vet from Pontsbury, Shropshire. She lives with her partner Roel, who’s also a vet.
‘I got the diagnosis three days before my 40th birthday. It was an awful time because Roel was going through a lot of work stress. I didn’t want to burden him with my fears because he was already under pressure, so I bottled things up.
I had a mastectomy shortly after being diagnosed and when the district nurse came to take the dressings off two days later, I wanted Roel to see the scar straight away. He looked at it from a surgical point of view and said, “Oh, that’s a tidy scar”, which made me laugh. I’d go through the day wearing a prosthesis and nobody would know, but undressing at bedtime was like a slap in the face. My breasts had been my favourite body part and I couldn’t get used to being flat on one side, so how could I expect Roel to get used to it?
I was blindsided by how the whole experience affected our relationship. Losing all my hair during chemo meant I felt stripped of my femininity. I just couldn’t see how Roel could find me attractive – I was disgusted by my body. He tried to reassure me and said he wanted me alive with one breast, not dead with two.
Looking back, we should have been more open with each other. He cuddled me less because he was worried about hurting me after my surgery but that made me think he didn’t fancy me anymore. I couldn’t lie on the side where I’d lost my breast, so I’d lie with my back to him, and he thought that meant I was shutting him out.
Nothing prepared me for the side effects of Tamoxifen, which I was put on to help prevent the cancer coming back – it triggered black moods. One day, I found myself standing by the side of a road, thinking if I just stepped in front of one of a lorry, it would all be over. When I told Roel, he felt helpless and didn’t know what to do with the information. We tried counselling but one counsellor cancelled at the last minute during a very dark time and another didn’t seem to understand what we needed, so we felt left on our own.
Roel and I tried to get on with life as far as we could. We booked weekends away and went biking with friends every week, which gave us both a lift. Getting my tattoo was a turning point. A breast reconstruction would have had an impact on the sporting activities I love so I decided to have a beautiful iris pattern tattooed on my scar, in memory of my grandmother, Iris, who’d survived breast cancer at a young age. Roel helped draw it. After it was done, we went to the pub and I showed my chest to all our friends! It felt empowering.
Roel and I were determined cancer wouldn’t split us up but we did come close to it. Even now, I don’t feel we’re on solid ground. But I have a lot of hope and feel so grateful we’ve come through it together.’
‘Kerry hated her scar but it never bothered me. Still, it did take a while for us both to adjust to her new shape. I tried to reassure Kerry I still fancied her but she was fixed on the idea that she wasn’t attractive.
I took pictures of Kerry through treatment. She was able to look at them and see pretty pictures of an athletic-looking woman, not just her scar – and that made me feel less powerless as I saw I was helping her.
The whole experience has been hard and I feel sad when I hear about other couples going through it. I think it’s important to know you’re not alone.’
Breast Cancer Awareness Month runs throughout October. Visit breastcancercare.org.uk