In her PEOPLE.com blog, Diem Brown, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge contestant recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the second time, opens up about her desire for a child and the ups and downs of cancer and fertility procedures.
I think illness is the ultimate relationship test. You can see so many colors and facets of how different sets of relationships deal with a hardship when going through an illness. I’ll get to the romantic relationship later, but I think the same test is put on friendships, families and even your relationship with your job.
We all know the vow: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ’til death does us part.” I think the first time I heard that vow was watching my favorite TV couple Kelly Kapowski and Zack Morris get married in their Hawaii TV Special … yep I was obsessed with Saved By the Bell!
My point is that we have heard this marriage vow since we were little kids, on every TV show, movie or at a family members wedding. We heard that vow as kids and instantly felt security knowing that in our future, we will state a vow that bonds two people through whatever hardship may come their way.
However outside of marriage, there are no vows that set guidelines of how relationships are supposed to play out during an illness.
At the friendship level relationship, I have been so lucky to have most of my friends step up and support me in ways that have touched my heart. Through letters, Facebook messages, texts, girls nights in and even visits to N.Y.C. I have felt a deep love and I will always be connected to my friends that have shown me they are there no matter how long this cancer process takes.
You reading this blog right now and those who have left sweet comments and tweets have also given me so much love and strength and I do not know how I can ever repay the support I have been given.
That’s not to say I haven’t had some friends who helped me through my first bout with ovarian cancer, but they now seem distant and aloof this time around. They are not bad people, but in my sensitive state of mind they have clearly shown and voiced that they’ve helped me before but this they are choosing to sit this time around out.
I have to be honest – that it hurts, but it also makes the friends that step up no matter how many times you are kicked down shine even brighter.
That Marilyn Monroe quote comes to mind: “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”
Do You Owe Your Loyal Friends?
Quick sidenote: I’ve been asked, “How do you act when your friend gets cancer? Should/can you still vent to them about your problems?” To that I say ABSOLUTELY! They are the same best friend you had before, so vent away with what’s going on in your life as it actually helps a patient to hear things other than hospital talk.
Just remember to also be an ear for your friend when they want to share or are ready to vent about their health fears.
For me, that’s the relationship friend test – so when you are battling an illness it will become clear as day who is there for you. You might have friends that “fall off,” but try to focus and let yourself be blown away by the love people that you never thought would care so much about you give. Those people are your gem friends and your gratitude towards them will never fade!
Now what about the romantic relationship test? This part is hard and I have some strong opinions about this. I have talked to so many girls about how they feel they “owe” something to the guy that stuck by their side during cancer.
I understand that feeling – you wanna repay every loyal person but you especially want to repay the man that stuck beside you as you entered your surgery room, helped lift you to your feet and picked up your hair as it fell out etc.
The first time I had cancer I felt this “debt” like no other. I actually tried to break up with my boyfriend at the time before I even started chemo for fear of a break-up during treatments would be too hard.
He ended up not listening to my rationale and when my hair fell out, he would say the things that the average guys doesn’t realize makes the patient feel in debt. “I’m not leaving. Look I’m with you right now and you are bald,” he would say with a sincere smile. Now, in his mind he was trying to show his commitment, but his comment sparked a heated fire within me.
I asked myself: “Wait what does he mean by ‘and you are bald?; Does he want a medal? Is it so hard to be with a bald sick girl?” Needless to say, that was the start of my “internal resentment fire” towards him.
Yet, even when I broke up with him a month after I was done with treatment, I still felt this guilt that, yeah, he did stick by me through cancer … I owed him for so much help he gave to me.
I’ve had relationships after my first time with cancer and had built a definite defense wall up. I guarded myself, scared to get too close to someone. Scared to feel I owed something to someone.
Assessing Your Baggage
Dating after my first round of cancer, I would also try and figure out … when do you tell someone you are dating about your cancer past? “Nice meeting you and oh yeah by the way I had cancer and now have one ovary so not sure if I can have kids…” I would then start to rationalize with myself, “Wait, why do I even have to tell him … What’s the point? Is it really any of their business?”
I would then ponder, what if you were single and wanted to start dating while you are undergoing cancer treatments or start dating immediately after your last chemo treatments. You couldn’t hide the physical signs that you are/were sick?
For example, let’s say you signed-up for Match.com would you put up a bald picture as your profile pic or would you post an old picture of yourself before cancer or do something in the middle and have your profile picture be of you in your wig?
Most women I know want to be known for who they are, not for what “baggage” they may have. Personally, if in that situation, I think I would post a profile picture of myself in my wig BUT maybe have a bald pic in the “additional pictures” section, because having cancer isn’t who you are, its just additional information, right?
I think most women with cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer, feel ripped off regarding some part of what makes you feel feminine. It’s hard not to let your head get all weird and over-analyze what other people will think.
But to be honest, from my experience … guys don’t care. They, for the most part, react in the same way as they react when you say, “I’m not a natural blonde.” I’m exaggerating of course, but honestly most guys just don’t over-think the way most girls do. They just see the girl standing before them – guys hardly analyze the past “baggage” that got them there.
Currently during my second round with cancer … I expected/expect a lot out of my boyfriend. It may not seem fair, but I do. I have learned from my past and although we have no “vows,” I told him upfront when I got the news of my second bout with cancer what was going to happen.
I told him if he doesn’t think he can handle what’s about to come, it’s better if we separate now and I would have no hard feelings.
I told him I’m going to become super emotional and moody and will likely take out most of my frustration out on him if he stays.
I told him there is no medal for staying with me through this or for helping me emotionally cope when my hair falls out or when I get overwhelmed with the whole cancer process.
He looked at me smirking and said, “I’m not going anywhere, you crazy girl!”
Be Honest, Be Vulnerable
Yes, he sounds great and all, but he is a guy and I swear they have zero clue on the impact of the words that come out of their mouths. They don’t realize that most girls analyze everything, especially when we are feeling vulnerable.
I have gotten upset at him for certain things he has said that I felt were insensitive. I have also gotten upset at him for not touching and kissing my head, thinking inside that he must be grossed out by the “bald thing” in some way.
However, now that I’m “older and wiser” instead of bottling that resentment up, I voice it and his reactions are hilarious. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to,” he told me. “I didn’t think you would let me touch your head – you’re always hiding it.”
Given how insecure I was/am, I had envisioned this shining-armor boyfriend knight rising up, grabbing my bald head and kissing it all over, forcing me to get over my insecurities.
I had wanted all of this without saying I wanted him to do any of the above, I wanted him to just figure it out and do it. Brilliant I know … I expected my boyfriend to be a mind reader.
I think we forget when going through a hard time just how important being vulnerably honest with the people you love is. Even if you don’t have a vow with your friends or boyfriend, you can make your own set of vows by not holding anything back.
By stating your fears, you are taking away any thoughts of feeling indebted. By expressing yourself, you are not allowing an “internal resentment fire” to grow inside you. By allowing people who love you to be there for you, you are creating your own specific set of vows that will help you through your cancer/illness journey.
People who love you want to help you, but most just don’t know how. So instead of getting frustrated that they aren’t being the mind readers you want them to be, let them know what you need and the good seeds will rise to the top and pass the relationship test with flying colors – vow or no vow attached.
Check back for updates every Thursday: Diem will be chronicling her journey through fertility treatments, chemotherapy and her quest to educate others about ovarian health exclusively for PEOPLE.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @DiemBrown.
More Diem Brown Blog Posts