When Cancer Does Not Bring Family Closer
Last updated: May 2023
When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, I hoped that the disease that was damaging my body would also heal some strained family relationships. I envisioned family members bringing me meals, visiting me in the hospital, and taking care of me when I was too ill to take care of myself.
Most of all I pictured them recognizing that life is short and setting aside long-standing grievances. Or, at the very least, taking a renewed interest in my life. Excuses of busy lives were no longer valid. I was on disability and had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with.
But even with all the changes my blood cancer diagnosis brought with it, it did not bring me closer to my family.
Blood is not always thicker than water
Complicated family relationships are not always a popular topic in cancer circles. We compare notes on diagnoses, celebrate remissions, and ask for advice on managing pain and side effects, - but rarely do we discuss how to navigate the painful parts of our own families.
I cringe when I hear the phrase “blood is thicker than water.” When I divorced a decade ago, my mother and sister supported my ex-husband. He has become their son and brother. I no longer feel welcome at the home of the family I grew up with. It would be one thing if we lived across the country, but our homes are only 6 miles apart.
It stings not being accepted and included by family. Pain is pain, whether it is caused by cancer or personal relationships. But no pill or patch alleviates the hurt of estrangement from the people we hoped would support us the most.
We do, however, always have a choice. We can choose to accept the way things are, even if we would not have chosen them. Why use our precious energy and time trying to change people and situations that cannot or do not want to change?
Blood cancer has given me the inspiration to accept all that was and all that may never be. I may not get to choose what happens, but I can always choose acceptance along with the graciousness and growth that come from it.
Part of me still seeks unconditional love from family, the kind of love that my ex-husband and my family now share with each other instead of me.
But I have come to understand that ultimately, it isn’t the love of others that needs to be unconditional. It is our love for ourselves, and we are ultimately in charge of that. Forgiveness does not mean that we agree with or approve of the actions of others. It means that we want freedom from the prison of our pain - and the acknowledgment that we are holding the key.
Our family members are who they are instead of who we want them to be. Maybe their behavior, at its core, isn’t really about us anyway. And even if they cannot forgive us for our flaws and past mistakes, we still must forgive ourselves.
We are family
There are plenty of people and pets that will appreciate us precisely as we are, warts and all. That is why supportive communities like this one are crucial for those living with cancer and other health challenges.
If you are in a challenging situation with your family, please know you are not alone. I have met so many in the cancer community who have quietly shared the heartbreak of complicated family connections with me. Even if a cancer diagnosis did not bring us closer to our families, it could bring us closer to each other. Blood may not always be thicker than water, but perhaps the bond of blood cancer is.
How do you feel about your support system?