Marriage and Cancer: 10 Ways to Maintain Your Relationship After a Diagnosis

03/05/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015


Marriage is hard work. It requires a level of effort, dedication and commitment unparalleled to other relationships. One of the first pieces of marital wisdom I received from my parents was exactly that -- "Marriage takes work. It's not a stroll in the park."

Marriage captures the ability of two people to rely on one another through both the good and bad times. It measures one's character and integrity through the act of caring for another. As with any relationship, most marriages experience high peaks and low valleys. A diagnosis will bring out the best and worst of you and your partner. It has the potential to tear your relationship apart or bring you closer together more intimately than you could have imagined. As the saying goes, it's not about what happens to you, it's about how you respond. Upon receiving the news of a diagnosis, you must make the choice to not only fight the disease, but also fight for your relationship. Below are 10 ways to help your marriage after a diagnosis.

Commit: Above anything else, you must make the conscious decision to commit -- both to your spouse and to the process. Commitment doesn't automatically happen when you speak your vows. It is a choice that must be repeated over the course of your relationship. Your journey through cancer requires steadfastness and faithfulness to one another. You need to assume that life is going to get extremely bumpy and uncomfortable. Nearly everything you have encountered thus far has been butterflies, fairy dust, and roses and you're about to endure some of the most difficult moments in your life. Both of you will be pulled in different directions and be influenced in many ways. When things get ugly, complications arise, and grief pours over you both, you need to hold tight to each other. Commit yourself to be there for one another no matter what happens.

Communicate: Continue to talk. Grief is expressed in a variety of ways and for some, it shows itself in silence. Though there will be times when you need to process on your own, don't build a wall between you and your loved one. In an atmosphere of silence, assumptions are birthed and hurt will grow. Communicating can bring healing to your relationship. You will both experience different emotions from the moment you hear the news of the diagnosis, and being on the exact same emotional page will be a rarity. Keeping the lines of communication open will benefit your marriage by drawing you closer to one another and preventing hurt feelings in the future. It's OK to express your fears and anxieties. And equally so, it's OK to share your faith and hope. Be vulnerable and loving in your communication, and understand that talking things through will only benefit the bond you have with your spouse.

Prioritize: Life moves quickly upon receiving a diagnosis. Medical decisions will need to be made. You'll need to find a team of doctors that you feel comfortable with. Treatment will be discussed, and you will need to choose which option is best for you. Eventually you'll feel in over your head as the chaos circles around you. Keeping a list of priorities will help establish balance. Be aware of what tasks are at hand and stay on the same page as your spouse. Communicate what is most important to your relationship. Is it more important to preserve your fertility before beginning harsh treatments? Do you want to establish a medical banking account to manage expenses? Put yourselves first and be OK saying "no" to those around you. Your health and your marriage are number one.

Be flexible: Plans change... that's life. When cancer rears it's ugly head into your relationship, you need to start stretching. Many of your dreams, goals, and desires for your life and family will abruptly come to a halt. Keep a tight grip on your non-negotiables and let insignificant matters go. Change is difficult, but being flexible is more valuable than gold. Go with the flow. Some plans will fizzle and new dreams will come forth. Flexibility allows room for growth.

Stay on the same team: Cancer can bring out the worst in us. Anger is one of the most common emotions that patients and their families deal with. Remember that each of you process things differently, and that no way is better than the other. Allow each other space to grieve and be sympathetic towards one another. Remember that you are fighting cancer, not your loved one. Direct your anger towards the root of the issue, and don't let your emotions erupt in an attack on your spouse. Though at times you'll feel your partner doesn't understand what you are going through, don't alienate them and turn them into the enemy. You're on the same team, and you each play a vital position. Work together at working through it.

Pursue: We've all heard that we should continue to date our spouse after our wedding day. Whether to keep things interesting or to continue to nurture the bond, pursuing each other is important to your relationship. This shouldn't stop after a diagnosis. Though it will require a deeper level of intent, consistently seeking each other out will be rewarded. Make time for one another. Go out of your way to make your spouse feel special. Pursue your partner's heart. Ask questions about how they are doing and be a good listener when they respond. Treatments and the subsequent side effects may get in the way of your typical dinner and a movie date night, but if you are creative you can cultivate new ways to deepen your bond. Remember that dates don't have to be fancy or extravagant, and most likely won't be for a while.

Be grateful: Have you ever met someone so full of gratitude that it made you reflect on what you're thankful for? Having an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances will change your view of the most difficult times. Though you'll have a large list of things you are angry, upset, and resentful over, make an effort to think of things that you are thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of the quickest ways to heal a hardened heart. Make a list. Whether in your mind or on paper, write down specific items you are grateful for. Be thankful for the details. Be thankful for all things big and little. Be thankful for the life and love you share with one another. An attitude of gratitude will transform your perspective and will strengthen your spirit throughout your battle.

Remain intimate: Intimacy isn't always about sex. Though sex is one of the fundamental ways to be intimate with your partner, there are other means to stay connected. Unfortunately, cancer robs many people of their sexual function, yet marriages continue to blossom even without intercourse. When biology is thrown off, creativity is born. Adapting to your current situation will benefit you both. Be gentle with one another. Discover new ways to develop a more profound connection. Hold hands. Share secrets. Kiss. Being affectionate will remind your partner that you are invested in them. If you allow it, the intimacy in your relationship can reach new heights after a diagnosis. Vulnerability will welcome intimacy.

Remember your vows: Think back to the day you stood in front of your friends and family and made lifelong promises to your spouse. What did you say? More than likely, you vowed to stay by your partner in sickness and in health. While you probably had no idea that sickness meant cancer, you promised your partner you would not leave them when things got rough. You vowed to stand with each other no matter what. You vowed to love one another and cherish one another. There will be moments in your journey after your diagnosis that all you have left is the man or woman standing beside you. Think back to your wedding day. If you knew then what you know now, would your decision be different? True, authentic, raw love knows no bounds. You loved them then... love them now.