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Divorce and Breast Cancer: Your Marriage or Your Life

Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of a marriage crisis. She suddenly found herself in a battle with two fronts: advancing breast cancer and threatening divorce.
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Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of a marriage crisis. She suddenly found herself in a battle with two fronts: advancing breast cancer and threatening divorce. At first her husband, Wally, joined her in the fight for survival, but the conflict proved too much and he pulled out.

"Good," thought Helen, "Now I can relax and just have cancer."

I have counseled and supported many women in trying situations, but none as strong as Helen. I share her story with her permission. The names are changed in this national forum as Helen was hurt and angry, not vindictive. There are no demons in divorce -- only people.

Helen had met and married Wally with the dream of having children and living happily ever after. The fertility treatments bore cancer, not children. When the cancer returned yet a second time, the stress of the disease weighed heavily upon the already struggling marriage.

This time around, Wally had visions of being a great support to his marriage and his wife. "It's my turn to shine," she remembered him saying. He moved his bed downstairs for her convalescence after surgery. Helen knew he was not happy about it, but he did it anyway. He threw himself into cooking and entertaining family, friends, and members of her local breast cancer support group, Beyond Boobs. At first, there were a great many people stopping by when she returned home from the hospital. Then the "party" subsided and the two dug in for the recovery.

After a while, Wally was ready for the illness to be over and for Helen to undergo reconstructive breast surgery. His drinking began to increase. Helen had been the caretaker in the relationship. Working, cleaning, vacuuming, cooking, and paying the bills turned out to be beyond Wally's energy and attention level. Helen could see it was tiring him and straining the marriage further, but she could not help. She was ill, stuck in bed, or otherwise restricted to very low energy activities. She could not return to work and was relying upon the paid sick leave donated by supportive co-workers.

The couple continued to endure months of pain and drudgery in battling the cancer. Helen underwent more than four months of chemotherapy and another four of radiation. There were complications of cellulitis and C-diff.

Wally tired of friends calling to check on Helen. Wally accused Helen of never thanking him for all he had done for her, despite the three cards he had with her handwritten gratitude to him. Wally needed more support for himself as he tried to handle so much responsibility. Wally sought his own friends for encouragement and began sleeping at the clubhouse. He had underestimated the strength and pace needed for the long haul.

Wally yo-yoed in and out of the house. Helen found herself on the "divorce diet" -- losing weight because of the stress when she needed it most in the weeks before the surgery. Then one week before the reconstructive surgery, in an effort to do the right thing, Wally went into counseling and came out a reformed man. He rededicated himself to her and to abstinence from drinking. Wally told Helen she was right. He had been selfish. Despite sincere intentions, following through on the work of saving a marriage, supporting a wife through cancer, and maintaining sobriety was too much.

Four hours after the surgery Helen asked for a divorce.

Once Helen found herself on her own, there was an outpouring of love and support. Many had not offered help prior thinking Wally was there. Members of Beyond Boobs sent her on a mini beach vacation, cleaned out her bedroom closets, painted the bedroom walls, installed a new ceiling fan, brought new linens and towels, and donated a custom crafted bed. She was surrounded by her golfing buddies, work friends, sisters (both survivors of breast cancer), and the men and women of Beyond Boobs.

Helen had been very hurt by her husband as she battled breast cancer, yet acknowledged how difficult it had been for Wally. She had tried to avoid stressing him by hiding her fears. In hindsight she wished that it were a matter of protocol to offer men support as they walk with their wives in the fight against breast cancer. Some partners and families need to be coached on how to support someone in treatment.

Being with a patient in treatment is more than driving to the appointment, sitting in the waiting room, and wishing it was over for everyone. Being with a patient is participating in the moment and setting your own uncomfortable, bored, or inconvenienced feelings aside. It tests a relationship.

Helen also wished there had been marriage or partner counseling to specifically address issues they faced. There is always the looming fear of mortality. The couple may suffer distance in the relationship as the woman begins to focus on survival, excluding the healthy person from intimate experiences. Few couples are prepared for the early menopause brought on by all the medications. Threaded throughout are the emotions surrounding body image. Perhaps counseling for the spouse or partner as well as the marriage could help prevent divorce and improve relationship functioning during cancer treatment.

I am sad to write that Helen passed away last May. We had worked on this post as part of her healing process. Wally has stopped drinking. He has had to acknowledge things about himself that others might never be called to face. He felt he failed as a husband and was not exactly the person he thought he was. Helen wanted others to know of her struggle. Helen would encourage women similar situations -- fighting for their lives and their marriages -- to focus on surviving.

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