The story of how one inspiring couple became stronger in the face of adversity. 

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Two years ago, young wife and mother Susie McQueen, now 37, of London, Ont., began to notice that the headache and vision problems she’d been experiencing while pregnant with her second child—and, later, while breastfeeding him—had begun to worsen. While initially she had attributed these issues to pre- and postnatal-related hormones, when her vision became double and kaleidoscopic, she and her husband James, now 42, knew something was very wrong.

The Diagnosis

Susie was quickly diagnosed with a primary brain tumour (this means it originated in the brain, not somewhere else). The first doctor the couple consulted gave a dire prognosis: Susie would live for two years at most, he said. She was at immediate risk because of the potential for serious seizures. Plus, chemotherapy and radiation would not work on the tumour—nor would surgery because it had infiltrated through part of her brain and was now impossible to remove.

“A diagnosis or illness can significantly impact a relationship,” says psychologist Dr. Sheila Tervit, C. Psych., co-director of Connect Cognitive Therapy (connectcbt.com) and consultant to the Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation (wellspring.ca). “Clear communication regarding expectations and how each partner may meet those expectations is often crucial to a couple successfully navigating an illness.”

“It was unreal,” says James. “I always knew that this sort of thing happened to people and I’d think, ‘Well, that’s really too bad for them.’ You always think you’re untouchable. I didn’t even know what to say to make her feel better. I was just in total shock.”

The couple arranged for care for their two-year-old daughter and four-month-old son and James stayed with Susie in the hospital while she underwent brain surgery to biopsy the tumour (it was malignant). Rather than accept Susie’s alarming diagnosis, they sought other opinions and began to gather the resources they would need to fight for her life.

The Learning Curve

“It’s important for couples to educate themselves following a diagnosis or during a treatment,” says Dr. Tervit.  “They may educate themselves by reading, checking reliable online resources or seeking out peer support—another  couple who has been through the experience, for example.”

Couples can also seek support through their health care centre or community agencies, but there is no question that the most important support system will need to be found in each other, which can prove challenging for couples without the strong base James and Susie had.

“Clear communication about expectations, feelings and needs will help a couple strengthen their relationship during a time like this,” says Dr. Tervit. “Setting aside time to discuss and plan is not only practical but also helps promote discussion about expectations and needs.”

The road to recovery

Despite the frightening diagnosis, Susie—with James at her side—refused to give up. She embarked on a rigorous chemo and radiation regimen. During her third week of radiation, she experienced severe seizures caused by the tumour (and onging—Susie will likely be on anti-seizure medication for the rest of her life). “She lost the ability to communicate during this time, and the nurse said it might be permanent,” says James. “That was probably the worst point. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I would be able to talk to her ever again.”

While Susie did regain her ability to speak, her struggle continued to be long and arduous. “The drugs I was taking made me puffy and uncomfortable, plus the radiation actually caused burns to my neck, ears and face,” says Susie. “James and my mom had to shave my head. I just didn’t feel like myself. But James was always there. He always listened to me and told me everything was going to be okay and gave me lots of hugs. He said he would always be there for me, no matter what.”

While James was taking care of Susie, he was also taking care of their two young children and preparing to return to work as a teacher—a job he had taken a six-month leave from after Susie’s diagnosis. “I felt like I was fixing a leaky bucket, trying to take care of the kids and trying to help Susie,” he says. “I wanted to do as much as I could and educate myself because we were dealing with complicated stuff, like paperwork and insurance. It was overwhelming how much had to be done.”

During times like this, couples need to be unafraid to ask for help, either from their partner or from family and friends, says Dr. Tervit. “Couples will want to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the other person should just 'know' their needs,” she says. “Each person in the relationship is new to the situation and will not necessarily be able to anticipate the other person’s needs.  It’s also important to note that even though caregivers may not know what to do to support their loved one, this does not mean that they don’t want to support their loved one.”

James found himself especially touched when Susie, even during the most difficult days, would ask him if he needed anything. “She would do little things that would remind me of why we were together in the first place, like asking me if I wanted a tea. Sometimes I felt she was more of a support to me than I was to her.”

Integral Support

“Caregivers often feel helpless and unsure of how to support their loved one,” says Dr. Tervit. “They need to utilize their support system or seek out support in order to continue to be able to care for their loved one. Caregivers may be at risk for burnout if they do not take time to care for themselves.”

James and Susie agree that without their support system—consisting of a network of family and friends—they would not have gotten through their difficult situation as well as they did. “I could never have done it on my own,” says James.

They also cite constant and clear communication as one of the keys to their successful navigation of this illness together. “You just need to be honest about how you’re feeling, and we always were,” says Susie. “If you feel crappy, you really just need to say it—just be honest.”

Happier Days

Susie has now completed her chemo and radiation treatments, and MRIs are showing very positive results. The tumour itself is no longer growing and, in fact may have shrunk or only consist of remaining scar tissue. Susie will have an MRI every three months and remain on her anti-seizure medication, and her doctors are very positive about what the future holds.

“As strange as it sounds, this drew us closer,” says James. “A lot of the petty things we worried about before—the things a lot of couples worry about, like money or if someone is taking too long to turn left at a light—we now know those little annoyances aren’t important at all.”

Susie agrees. “We feel that nothing will break us,” she says. “We just feel stronger as a couple and stronger with our families, too, because our parents have spent so much time with us and the kids, helping us get through this.”