Breast Cancer Can Strengthen Relationships

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • It’s Valentine’s Day weekend when couples everywhere celebrate their love with roses, chocolate, seductive lingerie gifts, and a romantic dinner.  Really?


    In some families the day will pass without mention.  Some guys express their love by taking the kids to the park Saturday mornings, so their wife can have some time alone, but they wouldn’t be caught dead in the lingerie department buying something sexy.  Buying a card because of a date on a calendar isn’t their style.


    For other families, a card is only the start.  The kids will be dropped off at Grandma’s while the couple goes off for a romantic weekend at the fanciest resort they can afford.

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    Couples have different styles of marriage, so we should not be surprised that they will find different ways of coping with cancer.


    Whether you are celebrating this Valentine’s Day at the beginning of your cancer journey or years after your diagnosis, cancer has added challenges to your relationship.  Couples develop ways of sharing life’s tasks.  Sometimes they do the yard work and cleaning together, but more often jobs get divided.  One pays the bills; the other does the shopping.  One checks the oil in the cars; the other schedules the medical appointments.


    Cancer throws a wrench into the smooth pattern of life.  Medical appointments, exhaustion, and physical side effects of treatment usually mean that the husband or partner has to pick up the household responsibilities the patient had been doing.  In some families, this transition will be relatively smooth; in others the caregiver may be filled with resentment and anger.


    Breast cancer calls for adjustments in thinking about what is sexy.  How important are breasts to a couple’s sex life?  Sure, there are plenty of other erogenous zones to play with, but if the woman has doubts about her desirability after surgery, and her partner is fearful of hurting her, it may take a while to adapt.


    Unless a family has fantastic insurance and high income, most families have financial burdens from medical bills and extra expenses related to cancer at the very time when income is often reduced while the patient is out of work.


    I’ve heard all too many stories about husbands who cracked under these kinds of pressures and abandoned their wives in the midst of breast cancer treatment.  While these stories are heart-wrenching; fortunately, they are not the norm. A Norwegian study of divorce in couples affected by all kinds of cancer found divorce rates actually dropped immediately after the diagnosis, but in the long term divorce rates did not differ for cancer and non-cancer families with the exception of testicular and cervical cancer.




    In a 2008 study in Cancer called "Marital quality and survivorship" researchers Hae-Chung Yang and Tammy A. Schuler found that breast cancer is “devastating for everyone, regardless of the quality of [the] marriage.  But women in good marriages saw steady reductions in their cancer-related stress, while women in distressed marriages had a much slower recovery,"


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    This study found that although there was a spike in marital stress in all marriages shortly after the breast cancer diagnosis, the quality of most marriages didn’t change over the five years of the study.  The study backs up the common observation that cancer can bring close couples closer, but it can shatter shaky marriages.  What is new in the Yang and Schuler research is the finding that women in distressed marriages had a slower physical recovery from breast cancer treatment.  So strengthening your marriage can speed your physical recovery.


    The way you and your spouse or partner navigate your cancer journey is as personal as the way you celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Despite the tremendous stress of my months of cancer treatments and a rather grim prognosis, the experience ultimately brought my husband and me closer.  We did a lot of crying together; we talked about our fears and hopes; we made specific plans for worst case scenarios.  But there were times when sharing was just too much.  I had fears too terrifying to share, and so did he.



    I remember standing in the kitchen watching my husband working in the garden one day.  Although his back was to me, I could tell he was probably crying.  My first reaction was to go to him.  Then I realized that he probably needed some time to cry alone.  That’s our style.  We both need space and solitude to balance times of togetherness.


    There is no formula for how you and your partner will handle your cancer.  You can find advice such as this article, “The Breast Cancer Husband” here at HealthCentral.   The American Cancer Society has a book called Couples Confronting Cancer that addresses many of the challenges that cancer poses for couples.  Some the advice might fit your relationship. 


    Whether your romantic relationship is already strong or a bit shaky, Valentine’s Day might be a good time to commit to using your cancer experience as a call to strengthen it.   Maybe this year you could buy him the sexy underwear and a box of chocolate. 

Published On: February 13, 2010