Relationships with Cancer (double entendre intended)

First, the disclaimer: I understand every relationship has its ups and downs. I always advocate working through the tough times and attempting to heal a rough patch. A good relationship will go through its difficult cycles even without extraordinary stressors such as cancer, but many are able to get through it, and move on together toward a better day. That is the ideal. However, some relationships get broken at a foundational level and collapse. This article may speak to both relationships, but I specifically address those marriages that suffer structural damage where tearing the whole thing down and leaving may be the only sane thing to do.Broken marriage

This post is long, but split into two parts: My Story and Tools to Empower. Of course, my story is greatly condensed. I’ve shared a few anecdotes — just enough that you’ll get a feel for what I was dealing with. And now…

My Story

Shortly before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I got married. This was a second marriage and not what I refer to as the “real” marriage. It was of a short length and we both had children from prior marriages. I was diagnosed with cancer soon after we got married and it seemed our relationship revolved around my illness. I was the sick person; he was the caregiver. He was a lousy husband, but he took care of me during cancer, so I refer to him as the Caregiver.

About a month after our marriage, behavior began to surface that caused concern. Such concerns usually increase and become greater concerns. When something triggered in him, he would become irrational and prone to childish displays.

The morning of my first chemo, he threw a tantrum and said he was leaving me, right then, 20 minutes before I had to leave to go to the oncologist’s for my first dreaded chemo. Why was he so pissed off? In a nutshell, the day before while at work, while he was out of town getting his son situated at college, I called my son, instead of him, when I was terrified about treatment. He also imagined I talked poorly of him to my son. Upset with me, he pounded his fist on the bathroom door and said, “You’re just like my ex. I can’t believe this is happening to me again! I’m out of here. You’re on your own!” All at once, I faced the terror of my first infusion, blindsided by the Caregiver’s tantrum and announcement of walking out, and scrambling to find a ride to chemo in case I couldn’t drive myself back. I began to call a friend, but couldn’t punch in her number because my hands were trembling. The Caregiver then apologized and said he wasn’t going anywhere. I threw myself down on the bed and cried while he tried to comfort me. He said he was sorry, but what did it matter? This kind of drama and emotional ping-ponging shouldn’t happen, let alone in the midst of dealing with a traumatic medical event.

That night, my body indulged in a puke fest. While I had no control over the landing, I hit a bull’s eye when I puked all over the Caregiver’s jeans. Recycled Adriamycin right in his lap … Oooh, what’s that I hear? Ahhh! That’s the sound of my readers cheering!

Every two weeks, he would get pissed off about … God knows what … and he’d announce he was leaving me. When I say every two weeks, I had chemo every other Thursday and like clockwork, he’d throw his tantrums every second Saturday. As many of you know, the third day after Adriamycin/Cytoxin infusions is the worst day for side effects. I’d peer at him from the bleary-eyed darkness of a chemo stupor and wonder what he was talking about.  One third-day-after, he stormed into the bedroom where I lay in bed. He started yelling about how “screwed up” I was and that he had needs, too! His face was a blur and through my haze, all I could think was, Does he think I’m screwed up because I’m sick and lying in bed?

One particular third-day-after, he said he needed to go to the store and asked if I needed anything. I said, no, I didn’t, after which he hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, and left to run errands. He stormed through the door about an hour later, fuming, and announced, “We need to talk!” I thought, Whatever could have happened between the hug and kiss goodbye and now?  I said, “What in the world happened between now and when you left? Oh, never mind. I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s bullshit. And while we’re on the topic, you’ve really got to stop that Jekyll and Hyde crap. But if you must, can you not do it on the worst day of side effects? At least hold off until Monday when I’m feeling a bit better?” Of course, I laced my words with sarcasm. He acted like he wasn’t aware of his behavior, but having called him on it, it never happened again, at least not when I was at my weakest and most vulnerable. Of course, there was a lot of calm and good behavior between the bad scenes, which is why it was so easy to be caught off-guard and to feel like a human yo-yo.

During one of my efforts to confront the situation, he responded that I had emotionally pulled away. I said, “You threaten to leave me every two weeks. What do you expect? Pulling away is what you do to protect yourself.” The “I’m leaving” soliloquys stopped entirely.

Believe it not, there was another behavior that was the bigger deal breaker: His chronic lying. He lied for three reasons: 1) to inflate his self-worth; 2) to avoid conflict and still do what he wanted; and 3) to look out for his self-interests, even at my expense. The lies were over little things, and then they were about bigger things. Can you imagine having those revelations while in the midst of chemotherapy?

I worked part-time throughout chemo, underemployed and barely getting by. He was unemployed at the time and actually more dependent on me financially. He did take care of me: cooking, laundry, shopping, getting me to and from chemo. The man was a natural caregiver. He seemed to thrive in that role. I think it made him feel needed. And me? After coming home from work while treating for cancer, I felt grateful to find dinner in the oven, the clothes washed and folded, and food in the refrigerator. It was like I had a housewife from the 50s. My chemo nurse kept telling me, “Chemo is your friend.” When I saw how the Caregiver took care of the running of the home when I had no energy for it myself, I had to admit: Chemo is my friend!

The bigger thing is he paid into COBRA for health insurance, and my health coverage came from his coverage. So I found myself dependent on him for care and medical coverage. Leaving was not an option, at least not at that time. I felt conflicted and tortured as I found myself burrowed in a deep hole with no way out in sight.

When trust erodes a marriage, love must die. It simply cannot thrive in that environment. In the absence of truth, we suffer the wound of betrayal. This toxic breeding ground creates a profound sense of unsafety. To share living quarters with the offending person, and especially one’s bed, compounded with the vulnerability of being ill, can make you feel stuck in a prison that is your own home. Ideally, your home should serve as a sanctuary from the world’s difficulties. For your dwelling to shelter such an intolerable situation leads to depression, hopelessness and despondency, especially when leaving is an impossibility, even if for just this period of time.

I’ve heard it said that living in the past or the projected future is the enemy of happiness; that happiness is found in living in the present moment with an attitude of gratitude. There is some truth to these clichéd sayings, but they don’t take into account those whose present reality is such complete hell that the only way to escape is to comfort ourselves with a nostalgic better time or to project hope into a future yet unrealized. Even if the future doesn’t ultimately pan out, in the now, it provides comfort to imagine better possibilities ahead.

I did find my own ways to cope with the present in the midst of my personal hell.


1.  Lower Your Expectations.

This is to protect you. Often, they behave well and we forget what this person is capable of. Just as you think everything will be all right after all, something happens to crush you. You experience disappointment because those well-behaved moments raise your expectations only to take your emotions on a wild rollercoaster ride. Enjoy the good moments and be thankful for any reprieve, but understand that this person has not changed. Keep your expectations at a realistic level so at least you won’t be blindsided all over again.

2.  Nurture yourself, and often.

One of the biggest things we miss when our relationships suffer is the bliss of union. While it’s not the same, you can experience the bliss of union in other aspects of life. For instance, I experience this frequently in the creative arts. When I listen to a piece of music that strikes a chord in my soul, at that moment, I experience union with the song that creates a moment that is bliss. It could happen when reading a book, watching a movie, or through dance. Being in nature is a big pull for my soul, which is why I love hiking. The sound of dirt and debris crunching beneath the soles of my hiking boots connects me to the earth. At that moment, the mountains, the dirt, the chirping of birds and I all do our part to create a symphony that my soul understands.

People experience this in many aspects of life that are aligned with their personal interests and affinities. It’s the proverbial smelling of the roses. When I was in the midst of the hell that was cancer and the Caregiver, I would often take walks around my neighborhood. One house had a beautiful rose garden. I’d always stop and sniff the fragrance, getting caught up in the moment. I’d continue to another neighbor’s house. He was a professional pianist. I could hear him play from outside his house. Those free concerts always made me smile as I grabbed a piece of joy.

I also found a nearby vacant house being built up on a hill. No one lived there and I soon found out that I wasn’t the only neighbor who used the backyard as a Zen garden. A few of us at different times would go there to pray, meditate or just sit quietly and take in the extraordinary view of the canyons and hills. Because my home no longer served as my sanctuary, I found a safe place outside where I could sit alone and be at peace.

3.  Exercise patience, perseverance and acceptance of what you can’t change, at least right now.

Remember, this is a temporary place. This moment may feel like an eternity, but in the scheme of your entire life, it’s just a blip in time, a chapter in the book. It’s where you are now. You will get through it, at which time you will turn the page and start a new chapter with a whole different scene and perhaps different characters. Try to keep the big-picture perspective.

4.  Affirm life.

It’s easy to get into an “I hate life” mode, but it’s not good for your physical health or your soul. It’s often hard to see past the suffering to the light of a new day. One thing that helps is to start a scrapbook, Pinterest board or something similar to collect things that inspire, encourage and empower. I entitled mine “The Book of Life.” It reminded me of what was good in my life as well as those things to look forward to. It holds a collection of cards given to me from people I love, inspirational quotes, pictures or words about things I love doing and things I hope to do in the future. Our aim is to power up with Hope. There are many tools besides this that help to affirm life, but I mention this in particular because while covered in darkness, tangible items provide evidence of all your reasons for living.

5.  Empower yourself for a new day.

If you feel the need to move on from your relationship, you may not be able to do so at this time because of health and/or finances. Respect and be patient with your body’s needs. Have compassion on yourself. You’ll know when you’re strong enough physically or even emotionally. In the meantime, when and if you’re able, begin to empower yourself so that you can move on. If this is not a possibility, do what is within your power, but I also suggest outside professional help.

Admittedly, some or even all of these tools serve as bandages. The goal is to stop the bleeding long enough to pull yourself through until you’re strong enough to take concrete steps toward change. It’s about coping and anesthetizing yourself at a time when you have no choice but to remain still.

Even for those who are not physically or financially dependent on a spouse, or even those in healthy relationships, we all come to the realization that no one person can be everything we need or want. Humans are … human, not gods or goddesses, even if love songs tell you otherwise. It’s a hard lesson that usually begins with a disappointment. This is the beginning of enjoying a person with realistic expectations as we take responsibility for our own joy. The good news about the experience of joy is it’s not dependent on external circumstances or even being happy or content with our lives as we know it.

It’s not easy to go from an “I hate life” mode to a place of peace let alone joy. I know this personally, but I also know that desperation is a great motivator that jumpstarts our energy to make that leap.

Please do not tell yourself you’ll never trust again. Why wouldn’t you? You’re trustworthy. Surely there are others in this world, male and female, who are the same. I can tell you for certain that I’ve never been with anyone with a lying problem such as that of the Caregiver. I don’t expect others to be like him. I expect them to be like themselves, whoever I discover them to be.

When I told the Caregiver I wanted a divorce, I said I wasn’t going into all the “he saids/she saids,” that it wasn’t necessary to rehash everything that’s been said, but if there was one thing that was the deal breaker for me, it was his lying. He responded, “That’s it?” He blew a big sigh of relief. “Well, that’s not so bad!”

Can you imagine?

When the Caregiver left my home, despite everything, I felt appreciation for the fact that he took care of me during cancer, both physically and with health coverage, even if his heart wasn’t in it toward the end. As he was about to walk out the door for the last time, I said, “Thank you for taking care of me during cancer.” He shrugged it off and said, “Just pay it forward.” We parted in peace. I wanted to leave on a good note that focused on the good and not the negativity. This is why I call him the Caregiver. He was a lousy husband, but I regard him as being sent to take care of me during ill health. For that, I am grateful.

If you needed this article, know that I send you so much love and so many hugs from this virtual space. I wish you all good things, health and strength, love and compassion, and the beginnings of a brighter, better day.


  1. Wow Eileen there is so much great information in this post. What is most amazing is how you got through all of this with the caretaker and managed to end it on somewhat of a friendly note.

    Relationships are complicated and going through treatment when you are dealing with such a difficult partner must have been intense.

    Yet you took this experience and wrote so many great suggestions for others going through treatment and dealing with what you were having happen around you.

    I also appreciate you truthfulness and honesty, which as I have told you helped me a great deal to post something that was very personal to me.

    The best part of this are all of the wonderful suggestions you have that can apply to so many others faced with having to be in treatment.

    There is no doubt in my mind that you will be helping a great deal of people with this awesome post.

    Hugs and XoXoXo – Susan

  2. Thank you for being so honest!! Going through cancer tests every relationship we have, and when that test causes a break (rather than a bend), it hurts like hell. I agree with Susan, you have offered up some very solid advice on how to get through the roughest time of your life. Bravo! I’ve no doubt you will help many with this post too. My best to you going forward. Onward and upward!!

  3. Susan and Renn, thanks for the feedback. That whole period was definitely the hardest time of my life. Without false modesty, I am proud of myself for the way I got through it. Often we find strength we didn’t know we had. As for now, I’m just glad for better, more peaceful days … and I hope my story will help others who are still in the darkness.

  4. THis story resonated with me….just before I was diagnosed, I had ended a relationship with the same guy…..or it could have been his evil twin. I could relate to everything here! Great writing!
    Florence (

  5. I love the idea of looking for and grabbing joy in the midst if a rough road. Yay for you! It took a lot of courage to put your story out there, and I’ve no doubt it will help others in the same boat.

  6. Florence, if mean people suck, so do crazy people. Good for you for getting out.

    Nancy (pinkunderbelly), I hope it does help others. That’s why we blog. Wishing you a joy grabber of a day!

  7. Linda Rochelle Malis says:

    Wow…your honesty is so deep and so to the nutty gritty. You are going to reach a great amount of people who need to read about surviving difficult times and life skills. I remember my 10 year relationship with you know who (I won’t mention his name). Having survived so much and great losses, he was the last thing I needed. I had NO IDEA of his temper. I was used to his financial support and being wined and dined and showered with gifts. He was great with generosity. One day after a 10 year back and forth roller coaster ride, I just closed the door on him and felt relieved and never missed him…not for one second!!!!! Learning how to survive in this world and pick up pieces, when it seems so hopeless, and so hard. Of course, the base are HOPE and FAITH. This life is no play toy, but we move onward with faith and God will help those who help themselves. We move on to the next road, stronger with wisdom and maturity. Eileen, I admire your honesty, strength and tenacity. I am Really proud of you. Shine on, press on…you are SPECIAL. xoxox

  8. All of your admirer’s comments nailed it. Words like ‘Wow’, ‘Honest’, ‘Truth’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Strength’, ‘Helpful’, just to name six, shows this piece to be one of survivorship. I’m not a big fan of the ‘survivor’ word when it comes to getting through the cancer journey in one piece, but this story…your story, is truly about surviving a troubled relationship amidst the horrific trek of cancer treatments. A great piece Eileen. Well written, and oh so important. Words to live by for any relationship with a human connection including ourselves.

  9. dear eileen,

    i am completely bowled over with how honestly and practically you’ve turned out this post. i just know there are going to be people who will be able to get through horribly bad times when they read your story, then the empowerment segment. and the most imporatant thing is that when those who need it read it, they will see and believe, “she know, she cares, and she’s done something that I CAN DO”.

    i can imagine there are many others who have never been in such a difficult and painful situation, but who know of someone who is going through it now, or will be in the future. how fortunate to have this post to be abe to refer to, to help us give the gift of hope that not only can they survive, but they can envision better days.

    i am sorry that you had to go through such a bewildering, painful period when you needed the most comfort and emotional support from the caregiver. but i am in awe with how you used your internal resources to map out a plan that held out hope for you. and i am so glad you got to puke all over his jeans – yes, you heard it – M-M-M-E-E-E-O-O-W. but it was good that you that he did some things to keep the home running and take care of things you weren’t able to do. i find his parting words, …pay it forward somewhat ironic. boy, have you EVER, more than he will ever know.

    love, XOXO

    karen, TC

  10. Linda, Marla, Karen, thanks for the supportive words. After sharing such a personal piece, it means a lot. I do hope it finds the right people, not that I’ve heard a peep from anyone yet, but undoubtedly, those who need it may not be comfortable to talk, and that’s okay.

    Karen, you made me laugh when you chimed in about the puke on the jeans. 🙂

  11. Great post, Eileen, and very well written! My ex-husband must have been cut from the same cloth as yours. When we split up, he started dating a woman he worked with (whom I suspected he was seeing well before our marriage’s demise.) After awhile my son told me that my ex had dumped her because she had become “too needy” after her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. What a guy, huh? And I can one-up you on the puking on the jeans. On the way to the hospital to deliver my second child, my water broke just as we got to the hospital’s parking lot—in his precious Porsche. I apologized (!) at the time, but when I think of it now, I just have to smile. 🙂

  12. Melissa, Hah! Love it. Yes, that’s even better because you can’t throw the Porsche in the washer.

  13. I’m sort of speechless after reading this one. I know I’m very lucky to have a spouse who’s stood by me and I know I have probably taken him for granted at times. I am in awe of your raw honesty. It’s terrific you are so open because this post offers a reality check for some. Interesting tips you share. I think it’s amazing that you sought out a safe place in the yard of a nearby vacant house. I think this sentence is very powerful, “Even if the future doesn’t ultimately pan out, in the now, it provides comfort to imagine better possibilities ahead.” Thanks for writing this, Eileen.

  14. As always, Nancy, thank you for your comments. So glad you have a good husband. That makes me smile. As for me, I’m just so happy this is behind me. These are definitely better days.

  15. Eileen, all I can say is “WOW.” You’ve endured so much, and it’s amazing how you’ve come away from it all so grateful your Caregiver was there at the time you needed him. Of course, it’s hard enough to deal with cancer; add to that a person who says he will leave you, and the emotional agony that it involves.

    Your post resonated with me, for my husband was exceedingly difficult throughout my diagnosis and treatment. There were problems in the marriage before cancer reared its ugly head, but things got worse as I became ill. This is something I want to write about on my blog, as you’ve inspired me and given me the courage to come forward with my story.

    “When trust erodes a marriage, love must die.” Really powerful lines in a poignant, emotionally charged post. Thank you for your raw honesty.

  16. I have missed so MUCH in the blogosphere as I’ve been running around doing all of this science stuff… MY GOSH… This is beautifully written and Oh So Powerful…

    Karen….Love the MMMEEEOOOWWW….. now put the claws back…..

    Eileen…. you are a beacon on a hill and quite possibly on a list of my sheroes….



  17. Beth, sorry to hear you’ve been there too, but glad you’ve come out on the other side. Looking forward to reading whatever you’re comfortable sharing.

    AnneMarie, thank you. And I love the word sheroes.

    Hugs to you both! Your words and blogging presence are much appreciated.

  18. Wow. You have been through so much. I admire your courage.
    Your writing is beautiful I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing.

  19. You are changing lives with each new topic. This one is quite something. You should be proud of yourself. Proud because you came out into the sunshine and pround because you are sharing your story.

    I for one would love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you.

  20. Linda Ray says:

    This was beautifully written Eileen, and I so enjoyed it. Thanks for telling me that “I am not cancer!” I needed to hear that. My 71st birthday is this Friday, and I have a party with five dear friends who helped me through my trip through hell last year. I will dance every dance! I send love to you all.


  1. […] Sometimes there are fears about getting back into normal life. For me as a now-single person, I had not been the least bit interested in dating again. I’d been too preoccupied with survival – rebuilding my health and healing my wounded psyche. Yet as I’ve healed, I feel myself opening up to that possibility again. Relationships are what people do. That too is part of health. It’s scary to open up after being closed off for so long. I hear people talk about their relationship problems and wonder what planet they’re on. Yet, I’ve had those kinds of problems in the past and even during cancer when I was married to the Caregiver. […]

  2. […] 2009, only nine months before discovering a lump in my breast. It was also the day of my wedding to the Caregiver. Little did I know what lay in store on several […]

  3. […] still lay ahead to feel like it would never end. I said to A. who I’ve described before as the Caregiver, that I felt an overwhelming need for a dog. I had a Dog Urge that wouldn’t quit. I’d […]

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