I recently had lunch with a few other breast cancer survivors. As often happens, the discussion veered toward marriage. Specifically, divorce after cancer.
There’s little available information about how cancer affects marriage. Yet it needs to be discussed because cancer changes everyone touched by it. It also changes the family dynamics and has a profound impact on marriages. It’s time for an open discussion about how cancer survivors marriages change, from diagnosis to remission.
For the purposes of today’s discussion (and many, although not all of my cancer-related articles), I’m using the term “survivor” to include anyone who:
- has had cancer in the past and has no current evidence of active disease; and
- is currently receiving cancer treatment, but is not terminal.
Table of Contents
How Cancer Survivors Marriages Change: From Diagnosis Through Treatment
From the moment of diagnosis, cancer patients and their families are thrust into a roller-coaster journey filled with emotions. At diagnosis, it feels like life is going as slowly as possible – even stopping for a moment. But then it takes off like a rocket as you shuttle back and forth between doctor visits and test after test.
And then treatment sets in, which has obvious physical side effects and not-so-obvious mental side effects. All of this takes a toll on your marriage. Here’s how…
Cancer Changes the Roles and Responsibilities Within Your Marriage
Cancer changes the dynamics of your family and even the roles played by each spouse. Patients are dependent and incredibly vulnerable. And spouses turn into full-time caregivers.
Being a full-time caregiver brings with it plenty of stress and anxiety. It can be overwhelming. And for those patients who are used to being in charge and have trouble being the patient (like I was), it’s difficult to accept being dependent.
[Recommended Reading: Vulnerability is Courageous (and a Strength)].
Although you’ve both promised to be there for one another “in sickness and in health”, it’s difficult to fathom what that means until it’s forced upon you. Truth is, it’s not easy (so, don’t expect it to be or pretend that it is). This new dynamic creates complex emotions that strain the best of marriages.
Cancer takes control away from everyone it touches. So, it’s normal to try to figure out a way to control something. Some do this through research so that they can become an “expert” in the disease and/or treatment. Others become overly protective and/or controlling.
I was lucky not to have an overly protective or controlling spouse. But my husband Jeff out-researched me (which is hard to fathom, given that I love research and usually research everything to death). Within a few days of my diagnosis, he knew everything he could about triple negative breast cancer, it’s paltry treatment options, and what I could do at home to help my body fight back.
Even if your partner gets overprotective and seems more controlling, try not to keep secrets from him or her. It will only create a bigger divide and make things worse. Instead, talk openly and honestly with your spouse about your feelings, your treatment, and other issues that come up.
Resentment and Anger
During treatment, cancer patients have lots of support. I sometimes felt suffocated by it all. Yet my husband didn’t have enough.
There’s a surprising lack of support for spouses of cancer patients, even though they’re suffering too. They’re worried and fearful about what might happen. And they’re trying to pretend they’re not and to instead stay positive (which only makes things worse). Plus, they’re worn out and overwhelmed by their added responsibilities and duties.
My husband Jeff would sometimes joke that he was a single father of three children (note: we only have 2 kids). Hearing this bothered me at first, but I quickly realized that he was (kind of) right – and that it was his way of expressing how he felt. So, I listened and understood.
All of this can cause feelings of resentment and anger, which is normal. My best advice is to be open and honest with each other about your feelings, reach out for assistance as much as possible (and accept it when offered), and get counseling/therapy if needed.
Cancer Creates Physical Needs and Adds Emotional Stress to Your Life and Marriage
Cancer makes you, your spouse, and your marriage more vulnerable. As the patient, you’ll sometimes have trouble taking basic care of yourself.
During one portion of my chemotherapy, I would have 3-4 days post-chemo where I could barely function. I didn’t eat anything other than shakes and broth (brought to me by Jeff) and could barely get out of bed to make it to the bathroom.
But these effects aren’t just physical. They create added emotions in both you and your spouse that are difficult to deal with. All of this adds additional stress to your marriage.
I hated feeling vulnerable from my illness and would often try to pretend that I was fine when I clearly wasn’t. I remember clearly the moment I crumpled loudly to the bathroom floor (I hit the wall as I went down) and immediately lied to Jeff that I was fine as he banged on the bathroom door.
Intimacy and Sexual Health During Cancer Treatment
This might not be popular, but cancer patients aren’t exactly attractive during treatment. No one looks good when they’re:
- bloated from IV fluids and treatment;
- burned from radiation;
- scarred; and
- pale (they might even look like death itself).
For many breast and ovarian cancer patients, they get the added benefit of losing what makes them feel like women in the first place. All of this takes a physical and emotional toll.
Moreover, treatment often causes low libido. All of this results in a not-so-stellar sex life (and often little to no intimacy in general).
When I was being treated, the last thing I wanted was sex or even intimacy. I felt ugly and couldn’t fathom why my husband even wanted to touch me.
I’m surprised that people don’t talk about this more often. Sex is a big part of a marriage – and it’s much more than mere physical gratification. When you’re not having sex, you lose intimacy and connection with your partner.
This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to divorce and your spouse will cheat on you. But it does require open and honest communication (maybe even therapy). And it also requires you to be more intentional and creative about how to stay intimate and connected as a couple.
Future Plans Are Put on Hold or Wrecked
Cancer often changes your plans for the future – from planned family vacations to retirement planning. Cancer changes your ability to see the future, making it difficult to make plans. And treatment (and its effects) wrecks your plans. We ended up axing a planned trip to Disney World when I was diagnosed.
Moreover, it’s difficult to plan for a future that you’re uncertain about. You end up putting your goals and dreams on hold. And there’s often a heavy financial cost. There’s an immediate impact (because of your inability to work as much and due to the cost of treatment) as well as a long-term impact on your finances.
Because of the nature of my work as a lawyer, I couldn’t work full-time during treatment and had to hand a lot of work off. Unfortunately, I lost much of my business to other firms as a result. Once I came back, it took several years to get my business back on track.
Had I not had cancer, my trajectory would have brought me income that would have allowed us to pay off loans and save more for retirement.
How Cancer Survivors Marriages Change: After Treatment and Into Remission
Cancer doesn’t stop affecting you just because treatment has stopped. In fact, there are even more potential pitfalls post-treatment that can effect your marriage. Here’s how cancer survivors marriages change post-treatment and into remission.
Post-Treatment Fear and Anxiety
Anxiety and stress doesn’t end just because treatment does. Sometimes anxiety and stress actually increase because treatment has stopped.
During treatment, there’s a day-to-day purpose. Although you know that you can die from your cancer, you feel like you’re doing something about it.
But when treatment ends, your mind starts wandering and fear takes over. In my experience, this can take some survivors hostage. Although your spouse also worries, they likely won’t understand how you feel, forming a new rift in your marriage.
[Recommended Reading: Can Cancer Survivors Have PTSD? Here’s What You Need to Know].
Cancer Changes You and Your Spouse
Going through a cancer experience changes you and your spouse. You’ll both likely have a new lease on life and will want to live it differently (and that’s especially the case for the cancer survivor). And your journey to date may have changed how you feel about one another.
Regardless of how or whether your journey has changed your relationship to this point, your new outlook could cause problems. Although you may have been in sync before your cancer, that might not be the case any longer.
Moreover, it takes time to figure out how cancer has changed you and what that means for your life. Most cancer survivors go through a period of trying to get back to “normal”, only to find that you can’t go back. You need to undertake some self-discovery to figure out how you’ve changed. In the meantime, you’re in limbo – and so is your marriage.
This happened to me post-treatment. Once I admitted to myself that something had changed and I needed to figure that out (I tried to ignore it for a while), it took several years for me to determine how I had changed and what that meant for me going forward. [Hint: it’s what led me out of my legal career and into coaching].
This definitely affected my marriage. It challenged us as a couple. Although things sometimes felt tough, eventually it made my marriage and relationship with my husband stronger. But it doesn’t work that way for everyone.
[Recommended Reading: The Impossibility of Going Back].
When you’re in the midst of treatment, you have plenty of support (at least, most patients do). And then it all ends rather quickly. People go back to their lives and they expect you to do the same.
This experience can be difficult for many cancer survivors to navigate. You’re still dealing with a bunch of negative side effects from treatment, such as: low libido, extreme fatigue, pain, memory and concentration issues, and digestive issues. Plus, you’ve often got guilt, shame, and all kinds of crazy emotions swirling around in your head.
Just like you, your spouse wants to return to normal. This can create a divide – and lead to resentment and anger between the two of you. Be sure to keep talking, be honest about your feelings, and get help from a therapist if needed.
[Related Reading: What Cancer Survivors Want You to Know].
How Your Marriage Changes is Ultimately Up to You
Now that you know how cancer survivors marriages change, from diagnosis all the way into remission (and why), it’s time to learn how to utilize this to help strengthen your marriage.
Although cancer brings with it new challenges that will test you and your spouse, it also brings with it new opportunities.
Your cancer journey also brings with it opportunities:
- to be more open and honest with one another;
- to be there for one another in new ways;
- to be creative in how the two of you connect and create intimacy;
- for growth in your marriage.
These opportunities are obviously brought on by challenges. But if you and your partner strive to learn from them, communicate lovingly and openly with one another, and get help when needed, you’ll also have the opportunity to strengthen your marriage.
Take note: it takes both of you to do this, it’s not easy, and there’s no guaranty that everything will turn out the way you want it to. But there’s no guaranty for that in life anyway, is there?
Until next time…