I’ve previously written of the toll that cancer took on our relationships. Some friends genuinely surprised us with their compassion and grace. Many others fell out of our lives as if cancer is contagious. Worst of all, there were family members—hers and mine—who likewise bailed on us.
It hurts and, as Hemingway wrote, we must be clear and honest about what hurts. That is the only way to process the pain. It is also the only way to save the relationships that matter most.
Happy marriages don’t end in divorce.
Like career setbacks or successes, the lack of children or a house full of kids, poverty or sudden riches, cancer does not doom a marriage to failure. If you were a lousy/selfish/absentee spouse before the diagnosis, you’re probably going to be a lousy/selfish/absentee spouse after the diagnosis. The stress of the diagnosis simply amplifies those failings.
But this is not etched in stone.
Current scholarly data is a mixed bag when it comes to divorce among cancer patients. What is known is that men file for divorce more often and most often when the woman is the one with the diagnosis. However, even with those rather despicable facts, divorce among cancer patients overall remains on par with overall national divorce rates. The divorce rate among breast-cancer patients (14.5%) trends well below than the national average (44-50%).
Factors include maturity, economic stability, and education. Most breast cancer patients are diagnosed after the age of 50: mature, fully developed, and well past the growing pains of adulthood. There is (usually) relationship and economic stability that goes with maturity.
Improvise, adapt, overcome.
Still, mature people are not immune to the sense of shock and fear when a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. However, a seasoned adult is well-acquainted with the twists and turns life often takes. You work for years to make your bones on a job with the goal of advancement only for the company to downsize, outsource, or be broken up in a leveraged takeover. Or maybe you planned to retire at 55 and travel the world with your spouse but then your kid has to move home after their own setbacks. Grown folks adjust.
Cancer is like that but terrifying.
As (also) previously stated, this blog was initiated to commune with fellow fiction writers and develop my skills through interaction with that community. For those unfamiliar, that means “self-promote and show off my mad skills at writerly excellence.” I had been studying for a professional certification. There were plans to complete a 2nd degree and then pursue a better paying position at my current employer. Oh, yeah, there was a book in there somewhere I hoped to publish. Since Gaye’s diagnosis all of that seems hollow.
Coping skills—get some
No one is born with a talent for supporting a loved one through cancer. But most of us can learn. You just have to set your priorities.
When you’re not reading everything you can get your hands on regarding your wife’s condition, you would do well to read some literature on coping skills. Dr. David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook was already my go-to guide for “issues.” Burns’ book has been indispensable to me in developing the coping skills necessary for the challenges we both face. You can find The Feeling Good Handbook here.
Don’t lose sight of what matters
There will be days when you don’t want to drop your goals to tend to your spouse’s needs and wants. You will get frustrated with reciting what the doctor said, again. There will be days when you would like to remind your spouse that they understand their condition better than you do. Further, they do not need your hand-holding.
You can wallow in the shame of those thoughts or you can push past them and be the person she believes you are.
NO ONE SHOULD EVER BE ALONE WITH CANCER. EVER.
See, she does need your hand-holding and your attention. Otherwise she is alone with the disease and the fear. So, she does need you to recite what the doctor said, for the fifth, or fifthteenth, or fiftieth time because when you say it, it’s not maybe misheard or just wishful thinking. It is confirmation of the hope they heard in the doctor’s prognosis. And the confidence they heard in the doctor’s plan. It is hearing that she will live—from you—the person she loves and trusts. Because that is the loving affection that comforts and heals.
We have to take care of each other or risk losing ourselves to this disease even as others drift away from us.
In the days after Gaye’s surgery, radiation therapy, and the start of maintenance medication we settled into the routine of our new life. We walked in the mornings, we worked at our separate stations, (we both work from home two days a week) and we walked again in the evenings. I learned to read her fatigue and I took steps to minimize her exhaustion.
At the end of every day I stretch her hip flexors, her hamstrings, and her achilles tendons. I also stretch and rub her feet. It helps with arthritis-like pain from the Letrozole. More than that, we have a moment of relaxation and affection. We commune as a couple. As, Vonnegut wrote, “a nation of two.”
These days, making Gaye laugh means more to me than getting my little crime diddies out there for fortune and fame. The professional certification will wait. I’ll advance on the job or I won’t. As long as we’re together, nothing else matters.
Stay connected, whatever it takes, stay connected.
Stay positive, stay strong.
The photo at the top, the Missus and I in San Francisco c. 2009 and the photo of the Burns book, belongs to the author. The otter photo does not. It is used here for illustrative/educational purposes as covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.