Summary: Divorce and separating is a common occurrence when cancer steps into relationships. Over twenty percent of females who are diagnosed with cancer end up divorced or fighting their battle single. Many couples are not ready to face the relationship turmoil that arises when an extra, life-altering stressor like cancer steps in. Being aware of the issues that can arise in your relationship can be beneficial if you are partnered up and heading into battle.
Any cancer diagnosis can bring intense personal physical and emotional challenges to the self, as well as creating these issues within a relationship or marriage. In many cases, the blame of separation or divorce is placed on the cancer itself and all of the stress that came along with it. However, most therapists and doctors agree that this is not the case, and the cancer or illness only reveals the missing pieces within the relationship to begin with.
The direct intensity of emotional stress during the time of cancer has the ability to magnify any negative patterns of behavior within a relationship, as the roles between the couple shift and alter. If one partner is acting as the caregiver, they may need to step up more to take over roles that the other partner can no longer do. Both partners will need to learn to manage and express their feelings of fear, resentment, anger, anxiety and grief that arise, along with any other stressors that may appear. How a couple relates and interacts with each other before the cancer diagnosis will determine how easily communication and stress are handled during the treatment and life with cancer.
Doctor Peter Edelstein states that, “Healthy marriages are rarely permanently destabilized by a cancer diagnosis, although they may go through several rough patches. In the end, solid marriages may even be further strengthened by the true partnering of spouses in together facing the threat that the cancer poses to their relationship.” There are some marriages that may improve, when cancer can refocus the partners on what is truly important in life. He also stated, “In other teetering marriages, a cancer diagnosis represents the final blow, leading to separation, as this additional set of fears and issues simply overwhelms one or both partners.”
Many couples who make it through the difficult times find that the survivorship phase of cancer brings entirely new types of stress that highlight other issues within the relationship. There could be numerous reasons why the partner with cancer cannot bounce back to be their “normal” selves after cancer, and it could be emotional or physical effects that are the cause. They may never go back to be the same person as they were before their diagnosis and treatment.
While cancer itself is the most logical culprit, some patients may also blame a divorce or separation on themselves, rationalizing that if they had not gotten ill, the marriage would not have ended. All doctors encourage their patients to remember that no one chooses cancer; the choice, they say, comes in how each person reacts to the diagnosis, treatment and changes that occur, which can ultimately determine the outcome of the relationship.
If you are going through a separation or divorce, your personal support team can become your most valuable source of calm and stability. A cancer support group or individual therapy can also help you cope, not just as a person with cancer but also as a person without a partner. Look for services or groups that can tailor support to your situation and provide insight. Imerman Angels, a nationwide support network offering one-on-one support, for example, not only matches patients with “Mentor Angels” according to age, gender and cancer diagnosis, but also, when possible, to marital status.
The end of any relationship or marriage can be devastating, depressing and challenging for all parties involved, especially their partners. These feelings bring their own separate fears, issues and concerns, which all dramatically compound the enormous challenges that result from your separation or divorce. Dr. Edelstein says, “For the cancer patient whose spouse has left, the attention, involvement and support of loving family and friends can play an important and significant role in their cancer care and quality of life—providing for the patient’s physical, emotional, medical and practical needs.” And he adds, “While no one claims that the intermittent assistance and support of family and friends is a true replacement for the constant presence of a dedicated spouse, the deep involvement of loved ones is invaluable to the single cancer patient.”
Your New Normal
As you adjust to the many changes that can arise as a result of a cancer diagnosis, you will no doubt be experiencing a “new normal”. Coping with the end of a relationship at this time will add another dimension to the changed landscape of your life. However, while these changes can present challenges, know that with support you can learn to navigate this period and move ahead to embrace a full life.
Here are five lessons you can learn regarding cancer and divorce:
- Trauma is an everyday phenomenon. Many people believe that when their marriage ends, life will come to a screeching halt. And it may, for a while. The truth is, life holds twists and turns around each corner, and we really never know what is coming. Try to live your life understanding you can only ride along the waves, not control them.
- The spirit is stronger than the mind and body. There are only a few challenges in life that hijack your mind and body at the same time. Both cancer and the end of a marriage can challenge both your thinking and your physical makeup. Turning inward to find your own spirit can help you to heal and trust yourself.
- Fear is a waste of time and energy. Many cancer patients fill with fear upon hearing their diagnosis, and for good reason. Cancer is a formidable foe that will require more energy and time than you knew you ever had. In a relationship and marriage, cancer becomes the third, squeaky wheel. Learning to handle your fears and continue living and loving is the best thing you can do for yourself.
- Presumption and fantasy are the same thing. Presumptions are dangerous and not factual. When you begin to presume things in life, especially with cancer, you may be fantasizing about something that is completely unreachable. Presuming is a natural part of our human existence but becoming too dependent on the unknown can lead to disappointment and disaster in relationships. If yours has ended, focus on yourself and the reality of your life.
- Perspective is everything. Your perspective of yourself and this world shapes the way you see things, the choices you make, and the way you live your life. This also shapes the way you feel about situations, relationships, and your existence. Perspective does not always need to be positive, but instead honest. This can be your greatest tool in your everyday healing process.
If your relationship or marriage is struggling after your diagnosis, reach out to your medical care team to discuss your options for therapy or assistance to help you find the way. Do not ignore the signs of trouble, as this will only grow the problem. Try your best not to let your cancer take over your relationship!
Peter Edelstein, MD, FACS, FASCRS, author of Own Your Cancer: A Take-Charge Guide for the Recently Diagnosed and Those Who Love Them (Lyons Press, 2014)