Cancer and Divorce

Managing the twin challenges of cancer and the end of a relationship

By Nancy Christie

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A cancer diagnosis brings physical and emotional challenges, requiring both excellent medical care and a strong personal support system. When a couple chooses to divorce or separate during this time, managing the personal loss can present another hurdle. As difficult as this can be, there are strategies that can help you cope.

Why Now?

It can be tempting to blame a separation or divorce on cancer, but most experts agree that it’s far more likely that the stressors related to the disease simply highlight weak areas that already exist within a relationship.

The intensity of emotional and physical stress during this time magnifies patterns of behavior within relationships, as couples confront changing roles and responsibilities. The caregiver may need to step up to take over tasks that the patient previously handled, which can be a difficult transition; both partners will need to learn to manage and express feelings of fear, resentment, anger, anxiety and grief that arise; and, financial stressors may develop, especially if the patient is unable to work or if outside help has to be brought in to handle household or childcare tasks. How a couple relates and supports one another—or doesn’t—as they navigate these various factors will have an impact on their relationship.

According to 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), “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.”

While some troubled marriages improve, with cancer refocusing the partners on what is truly important in life, says Dr. Edelstein, “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.”

In some cases, couples may make it through the treatment phase together, but find that the survivorship phase presents an entirely new type of stress that highlights underlying problems in the relationship. “The spouse who had cancer often cannot ‘snap back’ to pre-cancer mode. She or he may still be dealing with lingering physical or emotional effects and may, in some ways, not be exactly the ‘same person’ as before, and the healthy spouse often has a hard time understanding and accepting this,” says Lidia Schapira, MD, medical oncologist and Associate Editor at Cancer.Net. The result, Dr. Schapira says, can be a decision to separate. “I’ve seen cancer survivors find the courage to leave an unhappy marriage after cancer and others who have been left by their spouse after enduring the illness. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, but more often it reflects longstanding problems in the marriage.”

For some survivors, a cancer diagnosis inspires the desire to make healthier choices in their lives, and that may include ending an unhealthy relationship. Mike Uhl, MA, MDiv, LMFT, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Newnan, Georgia, says that issues that arise in a relationship during cancer can make patients aware of problems and inspire them to make changes. “They may recognize, now I have a different direction in life, but the other person isn’t really interested in this new direction,” Uhl says. “Like any other crisis, if one person feels like he or she has developed or changed, and the other person hasn’t grown, they can outgrow each other.”

While cancer itself is the most logical culprit, some patients may also blame a divorce or separation on themselves, rationalizing that if they hadn’t gotten ill, the marriage would not have ended. But Uhl encourages patients to remember that no one chooses cancer; the choice, he says, comes in how each person reacts to the diagnosis, treatment and changes that occur—which can ultimately determine the outcome of the relationship.

Moving Forward

Whatever the underlying causes of a divorce or separation, employing strategies to cope with the new reality and ensure your own well-being is essential. Toby Dauber, LCSW, works with patients who are coping with chronic illness; she counsels patients to examine their feelings and then embrace those aspects of life that bring joy and inspire gratitude. “Usually when we’re down, our thoughts are much more dire and catastrophic,” she says. “You have to challenge those thoughts: can you imagine a time when you are going to feel better? What are you grateful for? Who is in your life? Remember what makes you happy, joyful and positive. You don’t have to stay stuck in this place.” Instead, she says, work to gain perspective and to recognize that “this is what was happening in this situation, this is how you feel, and this is how you can feel.”

Focusing on the future during the treatment phase will also benefit you physically, says Stewart Fleishman, MD, and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and the American Cancer Society and author of Learn To Live Through Cancer (Demos Health, 2011). “The latest research shows that focusing on recovery during treatment, rather than waiting until treatment is over, can shorten the recovery process,” Dr. Fleishman says.

While it’s true that the timeframe for recovery— physical, emotional and spiritual—varies depending on the type and stage of cancer and the treatment received, letting negative emotions about the end of the relationship take precedence isn’t going to help your healing process. And if you’re not able to move forward on your own, says Dauber, then it’s time to reach out for professional help. “Sometimes it takes some supportive therapy before patients are able to realize that their life doesn’t have to stay in this place, and they can reflect back and look at the changes and become stronger.”

Seek Support

If you’re facing a separation or divorce, your personal network can be invaluable—family members, friends, your faith community or even work colleagues can provide social support and practical help. “A trusted family member can look at the situation a little more dispassionately and make sure that legal or financial matters are protected by enlisting help from attorneys or financial planners. Social workers can help access community resources or entitlement programs,” says Dr. Fleishman.

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 marriage can be frightening, depressing and challenging for the former partners. The addition of a cancer diagnosis, which comes with its own fears, threats, issues and concerns, dramatically compounds the enormous challenges that result from separation or divorce,” says Dr. Edelstein. “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.”

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.”

A New Normal

As you adjust to the many changes that can arise as a result of a cancer diagnosis, you’ll 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.