Marriage and Life-Threatening Illness

How should we expect a cancer diagnosis to affect our marital relationship? We just learned my spouse has cancer, and we're reeling. We have the best possible medical care, but there's one important area in which the doctors can't help us: what can we do to keep the disease from harming our marriage?

Medical crises easily become emotional and spiritual crises, and can present a serious challenge to any marriage. If you’re in the midst of a trial like this, we suggest you prepare yourselves for potential threats by keeping the following thoughts in mind.

First, though you already know it intellectually, you need to remind yourselves constantly that everything is going to be different now. So let go of your expectations. Maybe you had hopes of being a “traditional” family in which the husband is sole provider and the wife and mother is home full-time – only to see this medical crisis change all that. Your faith and your marital commitment are likely to be tested as well. Your response as a couple will depend upon your willingness to set aside your earlier hopes and dreams and roll with the punches of your present circumstances.

Another way to say this is that you need to become adaptable. You may have to learn new skills in order to cope with the changes brought on by your spouse’s medical condition. This may include everything from using a hypodermic needle to trusting God in ways you’ve never imagined before. Wives who never considered themselves “career women” may have to jump into the job market. Husbands who were once afraid to change a diaper may need to become full-time childcare providers. Whatever the details of your situation, you can be sure of one thing: a medical crisis requires compromise and sacrifice for the sake of the patient and other family members.

As you navigate these difficult waters, don’t forget to count your blessings. Ask yourselves, “In the midst of all that’s happened, what can we be truly grateful for?” If you look hard enough, you’ll discover that there’s always something. So make it your aim to find new ways of enjoying life and serving others together. Just keeping your family together at a time like this is an accomplishment that can give you a deep sense of satisfaction.

Meanwhile, difficult as it may be to find the time, make an intentional effort to nurture your faith. Believe that God is in charge and that He loves you no matter what happens. This will help provide the resolve you need to endure what you’re forced to accept. You may find that your confidence in the Lord will grow deeper and stronger as you wrestle with the implications of your situation. Christians down through the ages have testified that a crisis is a good time to reveal and deal with doubts – not to sweep them under the rug.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help. There will be many times during your medical crisis when wise counsel and prayer support from pastors and friends will be a literal life-saver. Sometimes your need will be as simple as a meal or a listening ear. At other times you may need advice regarding medical or legal decisions. Ask a friend to help you “network” at church and in your community to locate useful resources. If you think it might be helpful to spend some time with a licensed Christian therapist, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We can provide you with a list of professionals practicing in your area, and our staff counselors would be more than happy to discuss your situation with you over the phone.

One last thought. Perhaps the biggest challenge you’ll face is that of finding some kind of meaning in this medical crisis. When you’re struggling with doubts of this nature, you may find some inspiration and encouragement in the words of Philippians 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” Even a seeming disaster can be used for good and for the achieving of the Lord’s ultimate purposes in our lives.


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