A marriage takes a lot of work; so does keeping a day job (or going to school), maintaining a home, and raising children. When you have cancer, there are times when the fight for your life takes more work than all of the above combined.

Since my diagnosis, I have been reaching out to women with cancer, both in the real world and online. One of the things that has surprised me the most is the number of relationships that have dissolved post diagnosis. It’s not one or two, it’s a lot.

Cancer and Marriage

Cancer adds a lot of stress to a marriage.

Every story is different. In some cases it was the person with cancer who left; in others, it was the co-survivor (what we call the spouse or partner of the person with cancer). They are all wildly different stories, and come from people leading different lives: from all different parts of the world, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, religious, non-religious. It’s tempting to be judgmental, but only the people in that relationship truly know their story. Let’s not pass judgment.

I’ve only been married for 6 years. I’ve only been married once. I’m not a marriage counselor. I don’t profess to have any special knowledge that would help others prevent or reverse marriage trouble, but I’ve witnessed a few things, experienced a few things, and had a few thoughts.

National statistics tell us that roughly half of all marriages in this country end in divorce. Those statistics are silent on the issue of cancer. Every relationship has its issues, and cancer doesn’t make those issues go away. In fact, there are times when cancer amplifies them. Cancer has a way of amplifying everything.

The one thing that has helped me maintain my sanity and perspective throughout this cancer ordeal is membership in a support group. I belong to the Young Survival Coalition which provides support for young women with breast cancer.

Our discussions in group are confidential, but I can tell you that at times they deal with issues in our relationships. A phrase came out at one of the meetings, and we’ve all been loving it and using it since: “You don’t go to the hardware store to get bread.” That one little phrase has been of immense help to me.

I love my husband. He is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. But I don’t expect him to be my everything. I have other people in my life: my daughter, my family, my friends, my support group. They all fill different roles, and provide support in different ways. And when I don’t expect my husband to fill the role of one of my girl friends, we get along much better. One of my friends in the support group told me: “We’ll be your bakery.”

When I unload in the group about cancer (where it is expected and appropriate) instead of unloading on my husband, we get along much better. That’s not to say I don’t tell my husband everything. He pretty much hears it all, but it’s not all at once. It’s not a deluge of problems and issues that I dump in his lap the moment he walks in the door. It’s not a bitch and whine session. It’s not constant complaining. I’ve already gotten that out of my system – dumped on the support group that completely understands what I’m going through. I already got my bread, so when I tell my husband what’s going through my head, or through my body, I can say things without that whiny tone in my voice or unrealistic expectations.

Does this have anything at all to do with the relationships that broke up? Maybe. Maybe not. I have no idea. Every relationship is different. Every person is different. This is just what helped me. Having a support group helps me be a better partner in our relationship. Believe it or not, I think practicing jiu-jitsu helps my husband be a better partner in our relationship. I’m sure other people have completely different activities that help them approach their relationship with more patience, compassion, and understanding.

I wish love, patience, compassion, and understanding could make a marriage bulletproof.

A cancer diagnosis teaches you not to take things for granted: your life, your health, your breasts, your hair. I’m adding relationships to that list.

For a more encouraging look at marriage and cancer, read my post The Promise.

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Judy Schwartz Haley


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