5 Lessons on Dealing with a Spouse with Cancer

Life is short

While my husband David did not die from his cancer, his diagnosis did introduce the stark reality of what could happen. Statistically speaking, my 55-year-old husband had a 50-50 chance of dying from his Stage IV oral cancer. That sobering statistic put everyday annoyances in perspective. In light of that, things that might previously have ignited an argument between us became inconsequential in comparison.

Spousal relationships should come first

For most of my marriage, I failed miserably at this. I immersed myself in mothering babies and toddlers and, as the parents of eight children, we were often struggling financially. I was so busy juggling bills and babies, I had no time to work on my marriage. The turning point in our relationship came after a long day of chemotherapy and radiation, when my husband collapsed in a chair in our living room, completely and utterly exhausted. I knelt down in front of him, removed his socks and shoes, and began rubbing his feet. When I looked up, there were tears in his eyes. In 27 years of marriage, I had never touched his feet. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I was putting my husband first. From that point on, I made a concentrated effort to consider David’s needs before my own. Doing so prompted him to reciprocate. In the ensuing years, we enjoyed an extraordinary relationship—a true partnership in every sense of the word.

Communication is key to a good relationship

For eight of the 11 days he was in the hospital after surgical removal of the tumor on the back of his tongue, my husband was unable to speak because of a tracheotomy. He struggled to communicate by writing with a shaky hand on a dry erase board. Ironically, alone with my husband in that hospital room, away from the cacophony of a house full of children, and despite being robbed of his speaking ability, David and I learned what it was to effectively communicate. In order to understand his needs,

I had to pay attention to David’s body language, becoming sensitive to the unspoken meaning behind his hand gestures, leg movement, or his facial expressions. With the removal of his tracheotomy tube, my husband’s voice was gravely and sometimes difficult to understand. His old voice never returned, and neither did our dysfunctional communication skills. We abandoned our old patterns of blaming and misunderstanding. I can remember only two instances in the ensuing five years that we even exchanged strong words, and then we immediately apologized. Surely with counseling and dedicated hard work, we could have changed destructive patterns in our marriage long before; but without the impetus of cancer, I’m not sure we would have. Which brings us to the next point.

Good can come from something inherently bad

I hate cancer. Cancer took my mother in 2010 and my eight-year-old grandson in 2013. But the fact remains that it was the shared experience of my husband’s illness that my marriage relationship was revitalized. Many times after his cancer my husband would look over at me, reach for my hand and say, “If it was cancer that made our marriage what it is today, then I am glad for the cancer.” I will always be grateful for the “bonus years” I shared with David those five and a half years after his treatment.

Life can change in an instant

Anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis holds an indelible memory of the moment the words “You have cancer” were uttered. Their life changed in that instant. My spouse’s diagnosis made me realize just how much I loved him. Hearing those words, I made an instantaneous decision to become the best caregiver possible. As for my husband, post-cancer he cherished each and every moment of life as the gift that it is. I will never forget his response to my question the day before his 60th birthday. “Does it bother you? This birthday ending in zero?” His answer was “No. Think of the alternative.” David didn’t live to see his 61st birthday. He died unexpectedly from heart failure the day before, just a few months after he’d celebrated his five-year cancer survival.

I don’t mean to trivialize either cancer or the caregiving experience. David’s treatment was grueling. He went through a radical surgery, followed by a regimen of radiation, chemotherapy, and a clinical trial drug. He seemed to age 10 years in 10 months. As his caregiver, I did things I never imagined doing: cleaning open wounds, changing bloody dressings, and feeding my husband through a tube in his stomach. I drove David to appointments, sat with him every Wednesday during his chemotherapy treatments, and watched my sturdy, strong husband get thinner and weaker every day. But what transpired in our marriage relationship during those months still amazes me. David died knowing he was truly loved, and I was left with the memory of what it was to share a true partnership with a spouse.

communication oral Cancer Story relationship spouse