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Childhood Cancer: Can Your Marriage Survive It?

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When a family learns that one of their own has cancer, it can bring them together or tear them apart. This is even more of a challenge when it is a child who has been diagnosed with cancer, a disease that will at the very least interrupt this time of innocence in their young lives.

"I was married to my best friend, and I thought we had a good, strong marriage," said Deborah Raiees-Dana, a tutor coordinator at John Brown University. Ms. Raiess-Dana and her husband, who she met in high school, had three daughters, and her middle daughter was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma at age 7.

"Initially, we grew closer," she said of her and her husband as they faced their daughter's grave diagnosis.

But over time, as her husband continued going to work and looking after their other two children and she devoted most of her time to their sick daughter, whose hospital was a two-hour drive from their home, the marriage began to fall apart. "I'd be there for most of week," Ms. Raiees-Dana said of staying at the hospital where her daughter was being treated. "The time apart, the distance between us, our different religious faiths, were all factors."

Ms. Raiees-Dana said that she devoured all of the available reading on her daughter's illness, but did not come across anything about how her marriage might be impacted. "I read everything they gave me," she said. "There was information about what to expect for the coming season, as far as school, siblings, her health, how to make sure we were not spoiling one of the kids, but nothing that mentioned how the marriage would be affected."

Over time, all of the stress of the situation built up. "No relationship is perfect," Ms. Raiees-Dana conceded. "We didn't take any precautions because we assumed things would get better. There was bitterness, assumptions, misunderstandings, and we did not realize the severity of them. There was all of this energy going toward saving my daughter's life, but nothing going toward saving my marriage."

Over the next 2.5 years, the couple did separate and eventually divorce, and their daughter did succumb to her cancer at age 10.

Ms. Raiees-Dana wrote a paper titled "Keeping Your Marriage Together When Your Child Fights for Life" that is still posted on the Arkansas Children's Hospital website, www.archildrens.org. "Part of why I wrote this is so people can be prepared," she said. "If at least you know what's coming then you're not thrown off balance and can have this feeling of control, finances, sleep and communication, emotions."

There have been studies on the survival rate of marriages that are put to the test with a child's serious illness. The latest such study out of Denmark determined that these couples are no more likely to split up than others. Ms. Raiees-Dana said that in some cases a marriage can even become stronger after a child's cancer diagnosis.

"It affects every marriage differently," said Peggy Gibson, whose daughter was 23 years old when she died six months after being diagnosed with a highly-malignant brain tumor. "Dave and I decided early on that we're not going to let that happen to us. That would be terrible to let that be part of the break up of a family." The couple, who also have adult twin daughters, has been married for 54 years.

The Gibsons turned their stress and grief into a service to others after joining The Compassionate Friends a support group for families after the death of a child. They are now invited to speak to medical staff at different hospitals to offer tips on how to communicate with families who have an ailing child.

The bottom line is, everyone copes or grieves differently. Whether they are grieving the loss of good health or the loss of life itself, there is no single formula for how every couple or family should behave when a child is diagnosed with cancer.

"The child's illness gets so magnified," said Ms. Raiees-Dana. "Everything else goes on the back burner and relationships get pushed off to the side. Some of it is understanding lack of sleep, understanding that one person is a lot more silent, understanding the differences between how people grieve -- the what ifs and could haves -- as things are not normal anymore. There are gender and personality differences. Even when the child is still alive, people deal with these feelings differently. One person may want to have sex more to relieve some of the stress and feel closer, whereas the other person may feel like, 'How can you think about it at a time like this?' or might start crying in the middle of sex."

Ultimately, Ms. Raiees-Dana and the Gibsons recommend that parents who have a child diagnosed with cancer find some support, solace, or comfort outside of their own marriage as well. This might be from a hospital social work or at their church.

"That other person cannot be a savior," said Ms. Raiees-Dana. "They might need to find someone outside of each other because they might both fall down."