My women's Bible study recently resumed after summer break. I felt the anticipation much as I had on the first day of school. Everyone was excited to see one another. A smiling newcomer named Julie sat next to me. She sported beautiful, curly hair, but its short length made me wonder if Julie had recently experienced chemotherapy.
My guess was spot on. Julie graciously shared that she was approaching the anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis. She not only disclosed details about the journey, but also about how it had affected her marriage:
I'll never forget that day. I was standing in my bedroom, and I noticed some pain under my left arm. I touched the spot, and much to my dismay, I discovered a large lump. I couldn't imagine there was something wrong with me. Later that afternoon I asked my husband, Mike, to feel the lump, and he encouraged me to go in to the doctor and get it checked.
I shared my findings with the doctor. I will never forget the concerned look on her face as she palpated my left armpit area and felt the lump. She ordered an immediate diagnostic mammogram. I called Mike to let him know. He left work so he could be with me during the mammogram. My doctor scheduled a biopsy for a few days later.
As the oncologist inserted a very long needle into my left breast — I can't stress just how long this needle was — pain seared through my body. Mike encouraged me to go to my happy place, and I announced, "I'm going to Jesus." Immediately the doctor said, "Amen, sister!"
The next day Mike and I anxiously awaited the news as we sat in his office. The doctor's dark, kind eyes stared straight into my soul as he tenderly shared the worst news I had ever heard: "Julie, you have breast cancer, and it has spread into your lymph nodes."
As I walked out of the doctor's office that day, hot tears cascaded down my face. Knowing the Lord had brought me a doctor who was a brother in Christ gave me a glimmer of hope. But to be transparent, I was scared to death. I sobbed in the parking lot. Mike held me as I trembled, and he assured me that we were going to get through this.
During this past year, my stoic, yet tender husband stood by my side at every chemo treatment and waited in the lobby for me after every radiation treatment.
One day I was especially down because clumps of my hair had fallen out the night before. On the way home from that day's chemo appointment, Mike pulled the car into a local jewelry store parking lot. I was so confused, wondering what he was doing because we didn't have the money for a single item in the store. However, after he helped me out of the car and walked me into the jewelry store, Mike retrieved an item from a sweet woman behind the counter. It was my wedding ring set, which I had stopped wearing because of chemo treatments. He explained, "Your engagement ring needed a few new prongs, so I had them fixed. More importantly, I wanted you to know right here, right now, that I would marry you all over again." My balding head shook with emotion, and tears streamed down both our faces.
How does breast cancer affect marriage?
Although Julie's story illustrates a beautiful component of her marriage, not all husbands will respond in the same manner as Mike. Breast cancer affects each marriage differently. Each spouse will experience a deep array of emotional turmoil and deal with the breast cancer diagnosis as an individual and within the partnership of marriage.
Support your spouse in recognizing, identifying and expressing his or her feelings. Watching a loved one suffer can be difficult for healthy spouses. They may be experiencing anxiety over providing the support that their spouse needs. They may be fearful that their husband or wife won't survive or that he or she will not be the same after treatment.
Many women worry that their husband will not be attracted to them after their body has been affected by surgery or treatments; however, partners of breast cancer patients usually want only for their spouse to survive and feel well.
If you or your spouse has recently received a breast cancer diagnosis (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a woman is 100 times more likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis than a man) or know someone who has, the following four encouraging reminders will help you and your friends as they walk this difficult road:
Communication is key to a thriving marriage, in sickness or in health. Upon receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, good communication becomes even more essential. Make time to connect and share your feelings with your spouse as well as to listen how your partner is feeling. If face-to-face sharing is too difficult, write your feelings down and share them through a letter, an email or a journal entry.
Spouses must take care to travel through the difficulties of receiving a diagnosis and treatment together. Let the spouse in treatment know that you really care about his or her thoughts and opinions on decisions regarding the treatment process.
Julie told me that since the completion of her treatment, she actually misses the special connection she and Mike had. "He was in the trenches with me — it was just me and him," she said. "Mike's employer allowed him to work from home as much as he needed and didn't require him to travel — that was amazing!" The connection with her husband was an unexpected blessing during this painful journey.
Julie told a beautiful story about leaving the radiation center on the last day of her treatment: She walked down the hallway like a child knowing a birthday gift was waiting at the end. As she burst into the waiting room, Mike stood with his arms opened wide, waiting to embrace Julie in a bear hug. A friend had also brought her a large bouquet of roses. She and Mike had made it a point to celebrate anything positive — big or small — throughout their journey.
Watch for blessings
Scripture promises blessings through pain and trials. Breast cancer is not the exception. Watch for God's blessings amid the pain and suffering that comes from the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. One of the greatest blessings could be found right in your own marriage.
Julie said that although she wouldn't choose the horrific diagnosis again, she is able to recognize all that God did through it. She said, "As I approach the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis, I have so much to be grateful for. I have been loved deeply by God, friends, but most importantly, my husband. I wouldn't ever choose cancer, but in all honesty, I wouldn't change it either. It has given us a new marriage — one that is more intimately connected and intertwined than ever before. We have traveled this road, every step of the way, together."
Erin Smalley serves as the strategic spokesperson for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for that department.
If you or someone you know needs marital help, Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to assist. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or help@FocusOnTheFamily.com