Scenes from a Marriage
The following article is excerpted from Chapter
of Advanced Breast Cancer: A Guide to Living with Metastatic Disease, 2nd
Edition, by Musa Mayer, copyright 1998, published by O'Reilly & Associates,
Inc. For book orders/information, call (800) 998-9938. Permission is granted
to print and distribute this excerpt for noncommercial use as long as
the above source is included. The information in this article is
meant to educate and should not be used as an alternative for
professional medical care.
Any crisis in the life of someone in a long-term relationship tends to
highlight both the strengths and problems of the bond between the two partners.
The ongoing medical ups and downs of advanced breast cancer are no exception.
Typically, the cycles of illness consist of periods of suspicion, waiting for
test results, diagnosis, mobilization of resources, treatment and remission,
followed by periods of relative normalcy before the next cycle begins.
Sometimes these cycles are widely separated, but at other times, it can feel
like one long crisis, with no recovery time.
Even during times of remission, the awareness of cancer haunts everyone in
the family, as Leo Charland notes:
Since Lisann's treatment ended last July, I have been trying to close that
book. I think about her all the time and hope that she doesn't have a
recurrence. I remember my personal pain of watching Lisann being tortured by
the poisons injected into her body. I could dwell on this for the rest of my
life, but this isn't helping me or her. I am trying to forget.
I think about the future and pray that we will never have to go through another
recurrence. Deep in my soul I know how insidious cancer is. You can not let
your guard down. And you subconsciously await for the next occurrence, hoping
it will never come.
Lloyd Multhauf wrote about the adaptation he and Sharon have made to the
disease, so far, and the changes cancer have made necessary:
After Sharon had her first bout with breast cancer, we were able to put it
behind us and go on with life, regarding cancer as one of life's memories.
Metastatic cancer is different. Sharon can't escape the reality of cancer, and
as a spouse, neither can I. But I don't live with it as she does. I read books
that take my mind in different directions. But there is seldom a day that we
don't talk about cancer, and I have to accept the very understandable fact that
Sharon does not engage as deeply as she once did in my intellectual interests.
We really must understand each other's needs. Perhaps we are even sometimes
using coping mechanisms, though I lack the skills at penetrating the
subconscious to know.
I believe cancer has the potential to cause great stress in a marriage. It's
easy for either spouse to feel pangs of guilt--Sharon, because so much of her
time is focused on cancer-related things (much of it on the Internet) that
other things get neglected, and me because I feel I don't do enough to help, or
I shouldn't get tired or grumpy, but I do. Fortunately, neither of us regards
feelings of guilt as being very productive. I think we're handling this okay.
But when I look at other couples, I realize how different the patterns are.
Sometimes it's the spouse who's heavily involved in the cancer network.
Sometimes, as with a friend of mine, the spouse seems to want to deny that the
cancer is happening, or at least to believe that it will be possible to get
past it. Successful patterns for living with cancer seem to be quite varied
because the emotional needs of people are so different. I would be quick to
recommend professional counseling if a relationship became very
A number of partners and spouses remarked on the emotional fluctuations that
the disease provokes. Bob Crisp described what he and Ginger went through this
We both go through highs and lows, not always in synch. This makes things more
difficult particularly when one is high and the other low. We try hard to
maintain some balance but this is difficult. Cancer is like a cloud that hangs
over your head and never goes away. Sometimes you can forget it for a
Glenn Clabo, in the time following his wife Barb's HDC, noted a certain
perverse consistency in his own emotional responses.
I'm finding a pattern to all this. When Barb is going through hell, my
instincts and dedication take over. I just focus and get with the program. Of
course I don't think about me much during this so when she feels better I fall
off a cliff. Both emotionally and physically drained to the point of wanting to
crawl into bed with a blanket over my head when it's "over." It lasts
a couple of days, then poof! it's gone. The first couple of times it was tough
for us both. We seemed to cross paths, with Barb going up and me going down.
Now we know the whats and whys and just deal with it. Just another new
adventure in the highs and lows of the roller coaster ride from
Leo Charland found the same sort of pattern in himself:
I think that the caregiver gets so locked up into doing everything and our
minds don't have time to think about anything more than the one we care so much
about. All else is done by rote, until our loved one is feeling better. Your
mind is lost and you really don't know what happened. You have been focused on
only one thing. Now every other thing comes to mind. You are overwhelmed with
inane things. You find that you have neglected your everyday chores and have
been living for only one cause. Now it's time to get back to the normalcy of
life. You have a lot to do but just don't know where to start. You say, I've
got to do this or that, but all you really want to do is rest, not so much
physically, but mentally.
I was going through this from November '94 through December '95. I'd had it and
began to feel depressed. I told Lisann that I had to get away and be by myself,
and do absolutely nothing. I went to Palm Springs and lay in the sun for two
weeks. I did not think of anything. When I came back I felt human, my brain was
mush but I felt good. This was my way of getting back to a normal
Partners and spouses also often feel powerless in the face of their loved
one's reactions to treatment or disease. Glenn Clabo recalls his own feelings
when Barb was newly diagnosed:
The surgeon's eyes were not able to hide what he knew. How could I keep giving
Barb hope, knowing it wasn't going to be good news? I wasn't ready for this. I
knew that it was very probable that the cancer was somewhere else. I was
supposed to die first.
Bonnie Gelbwasser remembers her husband's pain following her high-dose
My husband said the worst thing for him was talking to me on the phone in the
days after the chemo hit. I would cry about how sorry I was I'd chosen to have
the transplant. Obviously there was no turning back at that point and he felt
Patients also worry a lot about how their partners are coping. PJ Hagler's
concern for her husband, Mike, was evident in this message to the husband of
another woman with metastatic disease:
It's getting so hard on Mike, I know it must be hard on you as well. If there
was just some magic you guys could perform that would give you something to do
to feel you were able to achieve something. I keep telling Mike that his being
there and holding my hand when I need it is the greatest gift. We don't need
much. Just having you in our lives is what keeps us fighting in the first
Kim Banks believed that for her husband, Richard, doing work around the
house that she couldn't do anymore was one thing that helped both of them to
cope with the feelings of helplessness:
Richard has taken up some of the housework and errands that are difficult for
me because of the mets to my back. He rarely complains about the additional
work he's taken on, and I think it's made him more aware of how much work is
involved in keeping up our household. Of course I praise and thank him
repeatedly, which he soaks up. Remarkably, I think this has helped both of us.
He sometimes feels powerless in our battle against my cancer. By helping me
with the house, he feels that he's at least making things easier for me so that
I can focus on fighting this disease. My guilt over relinquishing my duties to
him is lessened because I know he feels better by helping out.
Helpless though they may feel, partners help immeasurably just by being
present, providing physical contact and listening, allowing for and
participating in the process of dealing with the strong emotions that cancer
forces, as Barb Clabo wrote:
As always, after the initial shock, which could take a few hours--Glenn and I
would start discussing it. This is one of the many ways in which Glenn helps me
through this so much. He lets me get all my emotions out, whatever they are.
He'll just hold me and let me scream, cry, rant or whatever. After I settle
down, he'll let me tell him what I'm feeling and he'll give me his assessment
of the situation. I just don't know what I would do without
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