In my book, Strength Renewed, Meditations for Your Journey through Breast Cancer, I make the statement, “When one person gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer.” (Chapter 3: No Easy Way). Let’s take a closer look at this statement. Your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents, your close friends—and your not-so-close friends: they are all knocked for a loop. During my treatment period I came to realise that in many ways, it was more difficult for Rob, my husband of over 30 years at that point, than it was for me. Yes, I faced the difficulties and challenges of treatment—but I had an army of people praying for me. If I didn’t feel up to doing something, I had an excuse to say, “I can’t do this”, and people understood—most times. Rob didn’t have that amount of prayer support. Nor did he have the excuse. He was expected to continue to function as normal.
So if you’re in that situation today, how can you help your spouse to deal with your diagnosis? Sadly, many marriages flounder with a diagnosis of cancer or other life-threatening disease. Decide now that you are going to see this through together, and ask him for his total support. If your marriage is already on shaky grounds, I do urge you to get counseling now. Don’t wait until your relationship is on the rocks before recognizing your need of help.
What of the strong marriage, where both partners are Christians? The good news here is that your relationship is likely to end up stronger than ever. Rob and I had a good marriage. We’d had our ups and downs, but we loved each other deeply, and we were strong in our faith. I was capable and independent, and the sudden temporary loss or decline of these facilities was not easy for me to handle.
But this had an upside. Rob stepped forward. He took over areas that used to be mine. He watched out for me and if he saw I was getting tired he took steps to get me to rest. What’s more, I suspect he often enjoyed the responsibility. He cherished me in a way he never had to do before. When I came to the end of my treatment and started to gain my strength back, I eventually had to say to him, “Please, Rob—let me take some of my life back!”
Our relationship to this day (nearly 16 years post diagnosis) is stronger than it ever was before. So once again, how can you help your spouse deal with your cancer? Encourage him to get involved. When you go to the doctors, specialists, etc—as far as he is able from his work point of view, ask him to come with you. This is especially important during the initial stages when you are struggling to grasp your diagnosis and what it’s going to mean to you. As your husband this affects him too, and often you will be too confused or shell-shocked to take it all in. Ask him to come with you, and to bring a list of questions he needs answers for, and any he thinks you may need to hear as well in case you forget to ask.
When you have to go through something alone, for example if you go for a CT scan, he still has a role to play. What a great encouragement for you to know he’s outside praying for you. Help him to see that you are in this together.
This is not his wife’s diagnosis. It belongs to you as a couple. There will be things you need to cope with on your own—but there are things he has to deal with too. Agree from the beginning that you are going to be open with one another. Cry together. Laugh together. Discuss challenges and find solutions together. I would just encourage him not to tell you how frightened he is!
It’s good to know he believes you can overcome and will fight this thing together. My husband would never allow me to talk about the possibility of dying. This became such an issue for me that I eventually went to see a counselor who was paid to listen! And when I came home, I was able to say I felt better for having got it off my chest, and it was no longer an issue for me. Remind him, and yourself, that you are not a statistic. There is no single person on this earth with your same genes, health history, emotional make-up, and husband! You are unique.
Cancer may have blind-sided me—but it didn’t blind-side God. He knows how many days I have on earth, and cancer hasn’t changed that number! There are no statistics for Shirleys married to Robs who have contracted breast cancer! And there are no statistics for your life either. None. One of the greatest things he can do for you is to love you. Hold you. Assure you that he doesn’t stay married to you because of your hair (although that is what attracted my husband to me in the first place!) He doesn’t love you because you have two breasts. This is an opportunity for him to reach in and love the real you.
The problem can be that men are encouraged to step in and rescue the damsel in distress. This time it’s not going to happen. He needs to be with you. Not to necessarily solve your problems, and certainly not to conquer your cancer, but to stand beside you and accept you as you are. He can’t fix cancer. But then he can’t fix aging either! I recently attended a seminar at which a surgeon said something really thought-provoking. She said, “Cancer is incurable—but it is treatable. Diabetes is incurable—but it is treatable. Yet we don’t go into the same panic over Diabetes as we do over cancer.”
Treatment is progressing all the time. Don’t presume you’re going to die. You have an excellent chance of living for many years. Decide now that you’re going to fight this beast with all your might, and ask your husband to help you. Don’t leave him out in the cold. He’s part of this battle. You’re in it together. Don’t try to live through tomorrow until it comes.
If you’re newly diagnosed, that is where you’re at, and that is what you have to deal with right now—together. As you move through the various phases of treatment and life, you will do the same. Face them together. After all, isn’t that what you’ve always done? You faced a new marriage relationship together. Perhaps you faced becoming parents—together. Maybe you’ve changed jobs or moved home—together. See cancer as a new challenge, which you’ll face—together.
Explain to him that you will have good days and bad days. Together, learn about the Cancer Roller Coaster. The more your hubby knows about these things, the better he’ll understand you when they occur. Encourage him to read and to ask questions, and where possible, read books together. One caution—check the back pages first! If there’s a “In Memory Of” at that back of the book, I put it right back on the shelf! You want encouraging material at a time like this. So one last time. How can you help your spouse deal with your cancer? Embrace him as the #1 member of your support team. Be grateful for him. You’re not alone. You’re in this—together.