My in-laws won’t accept my post-chemo vulnerability. Do I confront them?

Two years ago, aged 35, I was diagnosed with cancer and required major surgery and six months of chemotherapy.

I have a wonderful husband, and at the time my child was three years old. My diagnosis was a shock for everyone. It has been a hard road since, physically and mentally. Some of my friendships are closer than before, some more casual. I’ve also made new friends. However, I still really struggle with my parents-in-law.

Things became very awkward during treatment: I felt I had to hide outward signs of my side-effects. It was much easier if I just pretended I was OK.

We asked people who were visiting us or taking care of our child to not come if they were sick, and not take our child to places where they would be likely to pick up a virus, because my immunity was reduced. Despite being asked multiple times by my husband, my in-laws would continue to do these things and say we were hurting our child by not allowing them to be “normal”.

I still struggle with the breach of trust and disregard for my health. Both my husband and I have tried to talk to them about it, but they always change the subject immediately and things become tense.

For the past few months, although I am happy for my husband and child to see them, I have opted not to. I feel less anxious that way, but I continue to feel guilty.

Is there a way to move forward with this relationship that doesn’t involve me pretending that part of my life didn’t happen? And am I selfish for opting out of visits with this part of my family?

I’m so sorry for how hard the last few years have been for you. That all sounds incredibly tough. I hope you continue to be well.

I went to UKCP psychotherapist (psychotherapy.org.uk) Ali Ross, who has 10 years’ experience working as a therapist on cancer wards and in palliative care. He said it was really sensible for you to protect yourself during treatment and “to distinguish between selfishness and self-care”. Even now, after treatment, it’s perfectly OK for you to want to protect yourself from people who left you feeling so unsafe and unsupported.

Your in-laws’ denial of events is something he sees a lot of in his work. “It’s usually when people haven’t confronted their own mortality that they can’t engage in conversations about dying and so pretend nothing’s happened. Maybe the thought of you being ill, possibly dying so young and leaving your child, might have been too much for them to process.”

If you try, and they still fail to pick up the baton, then that determines how you go forward. You can’t change them

This is all, of course, staggeringly unfair. There’s you having to deal with a serious illness, surgery and debilitating treatment, and your in-laws can’t even talk about it.

Ross wondered how you’ve tried to talk to your in-laws about it, maybe in sensing their discomfort, you and your husband backed off quite quickly. As you want to move forward, you may have to try again, and go through the tension.

This may be difficult, and I wish you didn’t have to be the proactive one, but you are no stranger to bravery. Ross recommended saying something like: “I’m really affected by this [both the cancer and their behaviour] and it’s important to me you try to understand how vulnerable I felt/feel …”. Explain to your in laws that “it’s really important we talk about this and it doesn’t get silenced.”

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He added: “Be as honest and vulnerable as you can, and if you can’t then your relationship with them will have to be much more limited.” And there’s the rub. If you try, and they still fail to pick up the baton, then that determines how you go forward. You can’t change them.

But, to give this as much chance of success as possible, choose a time where you won’t be obviously interrupted and your child isn’t around, so you can talk freely. If they change the subject challenge them. “This is really important to me, to us, and I need you to hear it.”

I think your in-laws are poorer for not being able to have these conversations – but if they can’t then you have every right to protect yourself. My only note is: don’t make them the fall guys for all the bad stuff that has happened to you, and make sure you separate out their behaviour from the other awfulness of cancer.

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