How my marriage helped me cope with a breast cancer diagnosis at 37
I stood at the crowded airport gate, phone pressed tightly to my ear, straining to hear the voice in the receiver over the travel chaos surrounding me.
“We have your biopsy results,” the radiologist said somberly. “I’m sorry, but you have breast cancer.”
“What?” I cried, certain I’d just misheard her over the din of chattering passengers, crying babies, and the final boarding call for flight 1632 to Denver. Breast cancer. How could this be?
At the time of my diagnosis, I was just 37 years old and the mother of a toddler. When my husband and I exchanged “in sickness and in health” vows just a few years earlier, we never dreamed that promise would be tested so soon.
Yet there we were, a few weeks later, sitting side by side in the stiff chairs of the cancer center lobby, waiting for my first oncology appointment. Over the ensuing months, we’d find ourselves in those chairs many more times as I endured a treatment regimen that included intense chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction and a preventative oophorectomy due to my BRCA2-positive status (the gene mutation puts me at a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers, among others).
As I forged ahead, my husband and I were thrust into unfamiliar territory. I was the glue that held our little family together—I made the plans, paid the bills, and remembered the birthdays and anniversaries, all while doctoring boo-boos, drying tears, and singing lullabies to our son every night. Not to mention working a full-time day job that often took me on the road for business trips. Once chemo sapped my energy and left me in a brain fog, I was forced to relinquish many of those duties, and my husband had to take on far more than his fair share of the work to keep our household afloat.
While it was difficult for me to stay parked on the couch while life carried on around me, this episode taught us an important lesson about partnership. In marriage and long-term relationships, there are ebbs and flows in the breakdown of responsibility—it’s not always a 50/50 split. The trick is making sure it’s not always 70/30 or 80/20 favoring one person. My husband knew that he had to step up and take on more, and that this was a temporary situation. He also knew that if the tables were turned, I would do the same for him.
“We had to think about planning for the worst—how would one partner be able to carry on financially if the other was gone?”
Facing this health crisis also made us get real about our finances. We had to think about planning for the worst—how would one partner be able to carry on financially if the other was gone? While we’d always felt like we had plenty of time to save, saving money for a rainy day suddenly seemed more important than ever. My illness made us have the difficult conversations about wills, final wishes, and long-term care. Neither of us wanted to talk about that stuff, but we agreed that ensuring the surviving partner and our son would be okay during the worst-case scenario was worth the uncomfortable conversation.
More than anything, though, cancer taught us that we can handle just about anything if we approach it as a team. Just as we had in those hectic, sleepless first few weeks of figuring out life with an infant, we hunkered down, determined to ride this out together. That meant he was willing to step up to do the really hard things, like buzzing my remaining hair after it began to fall out in clumps and emptying my surgical drains after my mastectomy.
“Alongside him in the trenches, I could see how difficult the caretaker’s role can be during a serious illness or injury.”
And I tried my best to be there for him, too, acknowledging and assuaging his fears as much as I could. Alongside him in the trenches, I could see how difficult the caretaker’s role can be during a serious illness or injury. I often felt like I had to put on a brave face outside my home, but he made it possible to let my facade down once I stepped through our door, allowing me to freely express my fear, anger, and sorrow.
At the end of treatment, I received the best possible outcome—no evidence of disease. Just as we’d struggled together through my diagnosis, chemo, and surgery, my husband and I celebrated this sweet victory side by side. And while things turned out okay this time, I know that won’t always be the case. But I’m confident that we will face the next challenge with the same determined sense of partnership that allowed us to survive this ordeal.