In Sickness And In Health: What Really Happens When Your Spouse Is Ill

by Kelly Hoover Greenway
spouse has cancer
Ramblin’ Rose Photography

When my husband and I got married in October of 2009, we decided to write our own vows. I loved the idea of personalizing them and making them touching, with just the right amount of humor. I talked about how I loved his childlike-spirit and that I would foster it in our relationship, following up with a joke about supporting his fantasy football leagues (I lied, I totally don’t).

I never said anything about “in sickness” because that’s understood, right? Of course, when your spouse gets cancer or dementia or breaks a hip, you will be there for them — when you are older, much older.

Fast-forward six years and five months, to the day. My husband is undergoing surgery to remove a tumor taking up approximately a quarter of his brain. We will find out afterwards that, though the surgery was successful, he has grade III brain cancer and will need to undergo six weeks of daily radiation and 13 monthly rounds of chemotherapy. For the foreseeable future, we will be “in sickness.”

I think I somewhat naively thought that cancer, or any serious illness, was one of those things that brings you closer together as a couple because it makes you realize how grateful you are to have each other and how quickly it can all be taken away.

It turns out, cancer is something that does its absolute damnedest to tear you apart. Because when cancer pays you a visit, it doesn’t come alone; cancer brings friends. Physical, emotional, and personality changes, financial burdens, exhaustion, stress, worry, decreased libido, shifts in roles within the family — these are just a few of the things we deal with on a regular basis that make it really hard to stay united as a couple. And then there’s the guilt.

The guilt I feel when I fight with my husband while he is battling for his life is off the charts. I wish I could just give him a pass. I wish I didn’t still need a partner and that I could take it all on by myself. But life doesn’t stop when your spouse gets ill, especially when you have kids. So we still deal with all the other crap that comes up in marriages too, except it is amplified a thousand times, because of this huge thing we’re facing at the same time. The toll cancer has taken on our marriage is significant, and I have experienced days when I couldn’t say with certainty that we would survive. It’s not romantic, but it is the truth.

A few months ago, after I lost my shit for the umpteenth time, we started attending couple’s therapy at a wonderful cancer support facility in our community. One of the first things we heard was that even though we are going through the same experience, we will often have vastly different ways of processing it. What he needs in order to get through each day as a cancer patient is sometimes the complete opposite of what I think he needs as his caregiver. And we’re both right. There is no easy solution to this. We just have to keep going, and keep talking, so that resentment and anger do not replace love and kindness.

While I often do not understand how my husband is processing his illness, or if he is even processing it at all (denial isn’t always a bad thing I am learning), I try to remind myself that I have no idea what it feels like to have cancer, just like he has no idea what it feels like to have a spouse with cancer. We are both just doing the best we can.

We are not through this storm yet, so I cannot tell you unequivocally that everything works out in the end. But what I can tell you is that in sickness, as in health, the most you can ask from your spouse is to be heard, to be supported. And as my husband said in his vows to me not that many years ago, “To remember, that no matter what we encounter, the love we share is the most important thing in our lives.”

And it is. It really is.