Most of us walk through life ignoring the fact that we could get hit by a bus, drop dead of an aneurism, or become martyred at the hands of a psychopath on any given day. But, bad shit happens. Every single day. Cancer happens to marriages, and when it does, you do what you have to do to keep hearts beating and life going. You can beat cancer together, and your marriage can survive cancer. But, it can be brutal.
In sickness and in health, right?
If you’re one of the lucky couples, there’s the calm after the storm. That’s when you come up for air and realize that your spouse wasn’t the only thing ravaged by cancer.
Even if you get your happy-ending and beat cancer, it still does a number on your marriage, and you’re gonna need to do some damage control after the triage crisis subsides.
The dynamic shift carries quite a burden. This is especially true if you’re also dealing with little ones while becoming a caretaker to a cancer patient.
It can be daunting, but if you’re like me, you don’t think about it until you make it past the finish line. Then, you come up for air and reassess.
When we survived the beating that cancer gave us, I became acutely aware that our dynamics had shifted permanently. And, though my husband was very comfortable with our new roles, I wasn’t. Sustaining the role for me meant that I would be living in constant fear. It meant I would walk through my day with the shadow of cancer always trailing behind me.
It took a while for it to sink in, but when it finally clicked, I knew I had to leave the role of caretaker behind.
The Calm After the Storm
Cancer is TRAUMA. But, the beautiful thing is that MANY of us WILL make it out the other side.
So, God willing, you’ll find yourself in the position to turn around and say:
“That was fucking brutal. Now, what?”
The questions that come up once we DO survive are what challenge me every single day.
Picking up the pieces and starting again require living in the moment without fear of what may come back in the future, which (of course) is NOT easy. Especially when you’ve been in survival mode for so long. But, living like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop is exhausting, and you can forget to live the life you’ve been fighting so hard to keep.
Assess the Damage
Your marriage takes a hit with cancer. Undoubtedly. But, your marriage can survive cancer. However, like any major blow, you’ve got to regroup. You know what has to happen—you HAVE to talk it out. I know. This is the shitty growth part. It’s always hard. But, if you stick it out, it could be the key to gaining back a relationship dynamic that doesn’t revolve around cancer.
Let me state the obvious: It may be hard for your partner to hear about the TRAUMA you experienced during the SURVIVAL mode period. But, it is critical to have this discussion.
For me personally, it was an important part of dealing with my own grief, and it was a key piece in being able to digest all that happened in order to move forward with our new life. Be careful here. It is so easy to fall into the trap of chastising yourself for even THINKING of how cancer has impacted YOU when you’re not even the one WITH cancer. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
In fact, self compassion is key. If you’ve been bottling those feelings since the diagnosis, the time has come to release them. Let your partner hear about your experiences and your truths. They are just as real and just as important as his. They have value and deserve to be heard.
In my experience, this not only strengthens a marriage, but it can also give the needed care to yourself that’s been neglected for some time.
Strong Rain — Deep Roots
I’m not saying it’s easy. Cancer can ravage a marriage as easily as it can tear its way through a body. But, you can make your marriage dynamics resemble something you recognize in time. Your marriage can survive cancer.
Letting your partner see your experience in the full light of day can be the key to shifting your dynamic from caretaker back to partner.
But, this requires a lot of dialoging about many things that make you BOTH uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’ll be one big fat “dump trucking” session that will do the trick, or if it’ll be a series of date-night open hearted dialogues.
But, I do know that TALKING IT OUT is critical to surviving the trauma that your MARRIAGE experiences, that YOU experience, and that your PARTNER experiences with the storm of cancer.
Getting on with the business of living the life you fought so hard to keep is a tall order. But, we owe it to ourselves and our families to do just that.