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  • Antonio Merrick

Fighting Cancer with Pre-Existing Marital Problems

It goes without saying that cancer affects the whole family. A cancer diagnosis for one member of the family is a blow to the whole family. It is the emotional need of the patient to be as close to all their loved ones, especially their spouse. Allow your partner to be fully involved in your life. Let them climb in the trenches with you. Let them help you, from accompanying you to your appointments to grocery shopping.


Adding on, being a caregiver is not easy. You wake up every morning in shock as to how you ended up in this situation. Caregiving while being in a rocky marriage is frustrating and painful. You may feel emotionally distressed, severely sad, and, at times, hopeless. And if your in-laws did not support you in the past, there is a strong chance they will not support you as the primary caregiver of their love one.



Try to use your caregiving role to mend your bond with your partner. Even as a caregiver, put yourself first. Gain support from your family, friends, maintain a healthy diet, exercise, and take a break whenever you feel you need one. These are some things my friend Eric practiced as the caregiver for his then-wife Amy.


Before Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and Eric had a bitter marriage, fueled by years of conflict. It all stemmed from the fact that Amy's father never approved of him or their relationship. For years, Amy was torn between pleasing her father and loving her husband. The years of confirmation bias took a toll on both Amy and Eric. As a result of which, he and Amy decided (2 years pre-diagnosis) to move away from her parents towards Eric's family who was supportive of them both. However, after the diagnosis, Amy’s parents came back in the picture and the same old family conflicts started again.


After doing some research for Eric and Amy, I learned that unmarried women had lesser chances of recovering from breast cancer then married women. The assumption was married women already had 24 hour support from their spouse built-in and unmarried women had to build their support system. Amy had support; however, Eric went into the cancer battle as the primary caregiver completely isolated, alone, and without any emotional support from his in-laws, his wife or his wife’s friends, all the while suffering from verbal and emotional abuse. Subsequently, they ended up separating and later divorced during the most important period of their relationship. Amy's cancer may have given her parents the victory they always wanted, Eric being pushed out of their daughter's life, but at what cost?


If you have pre-existing problems in your marital life, see this situation as an opportunity to get back the lost love and intimacy between the two of you. Your marital problems must not come in the way of the recovery process. Also, try hard not to let negativity or hostility from the cancer patient’s friends and family impact your emotions or mood. Try to gain the happiness you have always longed for. Give your partner a peaceful and emotionally stable environment to increase your loved one’s survival chances. Even if that means seeking intervention to resolve issues between you and the cancer patient’s close friends and family members out of the view of the patient. Just remember, at the end of the day, you are the primary caregiver and you are responsible for the emotional wellbeing of the cancer patient and yourself.


If a family intervention is not plausible, incorporate marriage counseling between you and the cancer patient. The purpose of this counseling should not be a platform to address old issues; on the contrary, this should be an opportunity for the cancer patient to outline what support they need from their spouse. Also, this should be an opportunity for the patient and spouse to learn how to support each other emotionally during cancer treatment.


At some point, counseling and or family grief therapy sessions will be needed during palliative care within high conflict families. It has been proven that such therapies optimize the family’s ability to cope and encourage the sharing of pain and grief. The professional intervention will help family members to focus on shared interests. Therapy will assist in discovering what the entire family, especially the patient, would achieve out of healthy relationships.


The key takeaway is this, some cancers are not curable; however, therapy is known for curing the cancer of a toxic family relationship. Because at the end of the day, providing emotional support to the primary caregiver "spouse", translates to emotional support to the cancer patient as well.

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