Yelling. Crying. Belittling. Hitting. Pushing. Threatening.
The list is long. Domestic violence has always been a secretive issue. The abuser sees nothing wrong with the behavior and the abused is typically embarrassed or in fear of retribution. So, how do we help those we know are in harm’s way?
October, in addition to being riddled with pink ribbons, is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Even the month chosen to bring attention to this issue is overshadowed by a nauseating sea of pink. Couple an abusive relationship with living with breast cancer and you have the ultimate toxic environment.
Studies have shown that breast cancer survivors are less likely to report abuse and do not report significant changes in frequency of abuse after cancer diagnosis or treatment*. This makes obtaining statistics on this issue near impossible to come by. Having been to numerous events and speaking with a large number of breast cancer patients, we know this situation is far more common that not. We know that 1 in 8 women will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in their lifetime; it’s also stated that 1 in 4 women will be on the receiving end of domestic violence. Put together that is a big demographic for a little spoken about subject.
Have You Heard These?
“Look at you. Who is going to want you now. You are lucky I haven’t left you.”
“You have no money without me. You are nothing without me.”
“Can you just get over it? I’m so sick of hearing about your cancer!”
Verbal abuse in particular is much more difficult to navigate. Typically, the abuser doesn’t feel the behavior is wrong because they “didn’t hit you”. Threatening comments and belittling statements, however, have the same desired effect without the physical proof. Victims tend to think we won’t be believed, can’t be helped, or are stuck in these situations because of our health issues. Money issues specifically keep patients stagnant in these unhealthy situations. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the fact that sheer exhaustion due to cancer treatments make it physically difficult to move from the situation.
These are all valid concerns.
But Do You Know What Else Is Valid? You Are.
Abusive relationships are never the result of something the victim did or has. It is something the abuser does to assert a false sense of power. Someone confident in themselves and their relationship doesn’t feel the need to make their partner feel less than. Especially a partner going through something as traumatic as breast cancer. Typically, these kinds of behaviors were likely there prior to the cancer. Having such a serious diagnosis requires a lot of attention to be placed on the patient. In most cases, an abuser desires the spotlight and having that taken away can exacerbate the threatening behavior. Trivial things become life and death, arguments become violent, and actions become aggressive.
So what do you tell someone that you know is stuck in this situation?
You say to them “YOU matter.” Your life is still just as important as someone not facing this disease. Your dreams and wants are still valid. And no one, no one, deserves to be treated in a harmful way. You tell them that there are plenty of us who have come out the other side of this and are doing okay, great even. It can be terrifying to make it clear that you will not stand for mistreatment anymore, and that you are leaving. That conversation doesn’t need to actually happen if you don’t feel safe. Your safety is of the utmost importance.
If you try to justify the actions by saying “I know he/she loves me and doesn’t mean it” ask yourself this…would you take that behavior by any of your friends? Would you want that environment for your children? Why do you not believe you deserve better for yourself? Really answer those questions because inside you already know the truth.
There are answers to every question if you are courageous enough to look. Is it money you are worried about? Ask your cancer center’s community liaison if they can direct you to any assistance programs. Housing? There are domestic violence programs all over the country that can help you get out if you need to. Worried about emotional support? Question whether you are really receiving the emotional support you need in your current situation. The answer is probably “no”. There are a number of silent cancer survivors feeling the same as you. Find a support group or even better, create one.
There is nothing for you to be ashamed of. Do not be silent. Your silence is seen and felt by others in your same situation.
You Are Not Alone.
Years ago, I was undergoing treatment for early stage breast cancer. I was lost and defeated. Stuck at home due to chemotherapy, I had to endure endless insults, snide or threatening comments, fist punched walls, and broken glass. I thought I wasn’t worth anything more than that. I cried over my situation in the relationship, but I lied when asked and I blamed it on the cancer. It was not a supportive environment, and even writing this now, I fear retribution. This is my truth and I understand that others may not see it the same way. The constant stress, the walking on eggshells, was too much to deal with alone before adding cancer to the mix.
Having lived with metastatic breast cancer for the last three years, I know first hand how much easier it is to deal with this disease in a healthy environment. What does that say to you? My terminal illness is easier to live with not having the stress of that toxicity added to it. I did not think I had the strength to do it. But I did…and you can too.
Cancer patients have a unique knowledge or respect for the frailty of life. Why would anyone want to waste even one precious moment living in fear, despair, or hatred? If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and needs assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Domestic violence is not always physical and please, please, do not wait for it to become so before asking for help.
We see you.
*Study by Dept of Psychology, University of Houston, Houston, TX
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