Dealing with health problems as a couple

Health issues can have a huge impact on romantic relationships. Lucy Trevallion speaks to Sarah and Gary Orchard, who faced the challenges of heart problems and a cancer diagnosis by working together.

Gary and Sarah Orchard

Sarah and Gary Orchard met in 1992. “I remember he was so friendly and chatty,” she says. He says: “I started talking to her and it just felt so easy; we were laughing a lot.” They married five years later and had two sons, Ben and Sam. Like most couples, the future they imagined did not include serious health problems.

It was a double whammy. Suddenly it hits home and you think: 'Crikey, life could be so different'

Gary

It was 2015 when Gary, then aged 48, started feeling breathless during football practice. Around the same time Sarah, then 40, was feeling drained, but put it down to her asthma. Gary visited his GP and local hospital, where he was diagnosed with coronary heart disease and told he might need an angioplasty procedure. But the angiogram revealed worse news – Gary needed a quadruple bypass.

Not long before Gary’s angiogram, Sarah found lumps under her arms and on her neck. She had cancer. “When Gary told me he needed the bypass, my first thought was ‘God, the boys could lose us both,’” Sarah says. A few weeks later, test results confirmed it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She needed to start chemotherapy immediately. “They said to Gary ‘avoid stressful situations’ and there we are!” jokes Sarah. 

Gary, who lives in Southampton with Sarah and their sons, says: “I considered postponing my operation to look after my wife, but she was having none of it. 

“Because it was both of us, it was a double whammy. Suddenly it hits home and you think: ‘Crikey, life could be so different.’”

Sharing the shock of diagnosis

It’s common to be in shock when you’re faced with an unexpected diagnosis, explains Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor working with Relate. “That shock can be misunderstood as not caring or not being interested, which in itself can spark off a string of miscommunications,” she says. 

She explains that it’s common for couples to stop talking to one another, so the condition becomes almost a taboo subject. The person diagnosed might not want to burden their partner, but their partner will be more worried if they don’t talk to them. “If you both voice your fears and concerns from the beginning you’ll be in a better position,” she says.

After Sarah and Gary were both diagnosed, talking honestly was vital for them. “I think because we had to put on a positive front for our sons, we had to be honest with each other,” Sarah says.  

The importance of talking openly

You can’t make them do something they don’t want to, but you can say how painful and upsetting it is to be shut out

Denise Knowles
Relate

When you’re confronted with a serious diagnosis, fear is a common reaction, Denise says. If this fear means that you don’t want to think about what lies ahead, this can lead to a lack of communication. If this is you, try to think about the effect this might have on your partner. Even saying “I’m very scared” will open up the lines of communication, she advises. 

If it’s your loved one who has the health condition and doesn’t want to talk about it, Denise suggests: “You can tell them, ‘I need to know what’s going on so I can manage this and make some decisions. Please don’t shut me out of your life.’ You can’t make them do something they don’t want to, but you can say how painful and upsetting it is to be shut out.” 

Gary and Sarah both found that, as well as staying connected, it was important to give each other space when they needed it. For Gary, walking the dog on his own was helpful. When Sarah was having a hard day, she would cry in the shower to let her emotions out. “We needed to respect each other’s space and need to escape,” says Gary.

Walking boots - Sarah and Gary Orchard

Going for walks together helped the Orchards to stay close

Adapting to caring and being cared for

The bypass surgery went well, and Gary had seven weeks off work to recover. Sarah was having chemotherapy treatment, and spent a lot of time resting in bed. Gary was recovering downstairs on the sofa. As they couldn’t easily just go upstairs to chat to the other person, they sent each other text messages instead. They both found it comforting having someone around.

“But I felt useless sometimes,” Gary says, “because I wanted to be able to get up and do a bit more to help out. Sometimes I’d do too much and she’d tell me off.”

Sarah says: “There were times when I’d think, ‘it’s gone quiet downstairs, is he OK?’ I felt bad for not being able to help Gary more. But I didn’t want to coddle him either.”

Try to split the caring role from the partner role by making time for ‘couple’ things

Denise Knowles
Relate

Health issues can change roles in a relationship, explains Denise. Instead of feeling like partners, friends or lovers, you might start to feel you have become ‘the person needing care’ and ‘the carer’.

If you’re the person being cared for, it’s OK to feel that you don’t want your partner to care for you. “It just needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t ‘reject’ the person,” says Denise. “Think why you’d rather not have your partner care for you and explain this. However, if you both decide that your partner being your carer is necessary, then try to split the caring role from the partner role by making time for ‘couple’ things together.”

Denise emphasises that no one should feel forced into being a carer. “Remember you need to be honest,” she says. “You can say: ‘I love you and I will care for you, but I will not become your carer.’ If you need help, an occupational therapist can come to your house and discuss things that will make life easier. All you have to do is ask your GP for a referral. Some people might see that as a failing, as ‘I can’t look after my partner’. But if, for example, you physically can’t lift your husband up the stairs, that’s not a failing.”

In Sarah and Gary’s case, they were lucky to have Sarah’s mother living nearby. She would make meals for them and their sons, and drive them to hospital appointments.

The couple tried to stay close by going out for walks. Often Sarah slept in the car while Gary walked, but sharing the journey made them feel connected.

A new attitude to life

Now, Gary says he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. His cholesterol is lower, he takes a statin to reduce his risk of further heart problems, and he cycles to work, goes for long walks and swims with his sons. “And I’m back to playing football,” he says. “It was one of my goals from cardiac rehab.”

Now I know it can happen. But I know we’ll be OK. If we’ve survived this, we can survive anything

Sarah

Sarah still struggles with tiredness at times, but is back at work as a teaching assistant. Her cancer is in remission, and she’s having check-ups every three months.

Their experiences have given them a different attitude to life. “Whenever we have the choice between enjoying ourselves or doing housework and errands, we always enjoy ourselves now,” says Sarah.

Gary says: “I had always been a bit of a worrier. But now I pick my battles; life is too short. I don’t worry whether or not the boys have tidied their rooms.”

“I was always an optimist,” Sarah says. “I used to think: ‘That will never happen to me, everything will be fine.’ Now I know it can happen. But I know we’ll be OK. If we’ve survived this, we can survive anything.”

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