Breaking up can be hard;
not honouring the soul can be worse
Karen and I had met and fallen in love at a time in our lives when we were in the sunset segment of our careers (52 and 48 respectively). We were both professionals. She worked as a college instructor and I was an international consultant working in post conflict countries developing economic strategies for the most vulnerable. The first five years of our relationship we travelled, had an active social life with our lesbian feminist social network and I learned about vulnerability and communication. The stars were aligned for me socially, economically and spiritually.
It was my hematologist-oncologist who broke the news in February 2016 that I had cancer after she conducted my bone marrow biopsy. She casually said, “You have multiple myeloma cancer. It is incurable but can be managed. Here is a pamphlet. The nurse will set you up with a follow up appointment” and she walked out briskly.
This was devastating news for us as I had just come through a mysterious health challenge where I could not sleep. It took four years and $50,000 to determine that I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) causing my insomnia. I went from outgoing and curious to inhibited and isolated feeling like I had nothing to contribute to conversations – fearful I would burst out crying at a glance.
Not being able to socialize took its toll on Karen and me. We stopped communicating from the heart with each other. We stopped visioning about what we wanted to co-create together. After I healed from IBS through diet change and supplements, we had no container for “us”.
I was concerned of our deteriorating relationship, and also of being an economic burden on Karen. I poured myself into learning how to teach online and set up a virtual institute to deliver online courses to international development professionals. We decided in late 2015 to explore living overseas for five years in Southeast Asia where I could easily deliver online courses and we could travel in the region. The intention was to revitalize our connection.
When the cancer started to show signs of existence, and I received my cancer diagnosis in February 2016, I felt defeated as our Southeast Asia plans evaporated. The cancer continued to grow with the chemo, and I was sick 4 days out of the week. We both decided that continuing treatment was not for us. I did not want to live my last years of my life medicalized and/or nauseous in bed.
To reset our ‘togetherness’, we set out on a cross-country tour to visit friends and be pampered and gently held by lesbian communities across Canada. The love, laughter, and remembering was joyous and healing for both of us. It was a precious six weeks.
When we returned, I could not bear living in Vancouver where I was lonely and isolated while Karen returned to her functioning life. I wanted to be closer to nature in a vibrant community. The coastal town of Powell River fit the bill. Karen is a city person, and was not interested in leaving the lower mainland of BC at the time. We began a LAT relationship (Living Apart Together) where we visited each other every month for at least five days. But it was too late.
My life became rich with new friendships and my access to the natural world continues to fill me with magic and wonder. I have felt appreciated when I share my skills while contributing to local initiatives. I feel deeply alive again and my soul is happy. When Karen came to visit, our communication was easy, yet superficial, as we had stopped communicating from the heart making it unsafe to be vulnerable with each other. We didn’t know what each of us wanted or was really interested in so were unable to support each other. Spending time with each other took us away from our active lives where we each lived separately.
We had ‘the talk’ on January 1, 2018 and came to the conclusion that we were not really partners anymore. We existed as a couple without any substance. So we broke up.
Being single with cancer for sure has been harsh at times, especially when I have been sick and needed care at home, or support in advocating for medical attention. Dying alone is on my mind lots. I’ve been forced to turn to my new community of mostly straight people, as there is no queer community in Powell River. Thirty people are on a mailing list to be contacted when I need assistance.
Karen and I still are in each other’s lives, and we are forging a new friendship. She has been financially supportive with my housing needs and has come several times when I have been ill to assist me. It isn’t the same as being a couple sharing each challenge and problem solving together, yet holding on to being a couple when it is not fulfilling the soul’s needs is not a healthy relationship. And yes that makes me sad that our relationship did not withstand the health challenges, but in the end, Karen is flourishing creatively in her new life and I am connected to my community in a way I never could have imagined.
Cancer requires a strong container to hold the fear, nausea, anxiety, social isolation, and unknown. The diagnosis can rip you from life as you know it, regarding work and socializing. Mood swings can make you feel like Jekyll and Hyde have taken residence in your body. This makes it difficult for both in the relationship to provide supports to the other. If cancer hits when your relationship is in a communication funk, the relationship is at a disadvantage to bear all that cancer stirs up emotionally.
Life is for living fully, not waiting for normal to return because it can never return. It was the cancer that revealed our “us” container had disappeared. For sure breaking up is hard, more so when you do have cancer. Remember we are queer, we know that community can be there for us especially in the worst of times. Honour your soul, even when you have cancer.
Powell River, BC