One of the things my oncologist said to me at my very first appointment was, "Cancer either makes or breaks a marriage."
In my head, I sat straight up like a deer in headlights. I don't even think I really heard anything else he said because my mind was still wrapped around the idea that someone in that room may have just told my fortune. Or seen my secret. It was as if he could see what only I knew – my marriage was broken.
That was over six years ago. And when I think back, I believe he did know because he could see. I'm sure he'd sat in that room and given the “Intro to Chemo and Cancer” talk to countless couples. He was surely a good study in human behavior, at least good enough to see the two feet of space that sat between myself and my (now former) husband. I'm sure that void spoke volumes to him about the state of our relationship in this time of crisis, and he wanted to hint at the potential writing on the wall.
I'd imagine couples are physically close in times like this, when crisis strikes. When you are told you may be dying, you naturally circle the wagons and draw close. The emotional, mental and physical intimacy required of a partnership during the worst possible moment is probably a clear indication of the "for better or worse" part of those marriage vows.
And yet there I sat in this sterile little room with two feet of emptiness between me and the one person to whom I should be clinging.
As we left that first appointment, I retreated into my many thoughts and the hopeful idea that this cancer could finally be the catalyst I'd been looking for to bring my marriage the connection, the chemistry and the intimacy I knew it needed. I looked at the person driving me home from that appointment and knew he was the right man for this situation, and all the nasty, horrible things that would follow. I knew he would take care of me till the end, and I resigned to the fate of my marriage – that death would probably do us part a lot soon than one anticipates.
Only death never came, and I kept living. And I lived very much as an outsider to my own marriage. Cancer hadn't brought the "ah-ha" Oprah moment I thought it might. It hadn't been the catalyst I had hoped for, but turned out to be the one I needed to realize life is far too short to be as unhappy as I was. I knew he was a good man, he just wasn't the man for me. No crisis was going to change that.
The longer and farther I travel into the cancer world, the more people I talk to in the midst of their own relationship crisis. These are people putting everything they have into fighting for their life, with nothing left at the end of the day for anyone else. These are caregivers who go from being a partner and lover, to a nurse and parent. These are marriages that were already hanging by a thread, and the exhaustion of cancer leaves them with little desire to maintain what's left of an already strained relationship. These are cracks and fractures magnified by the pressure of disease and the fatigue it brings to every corner of life.
As I faced my own mortality with metastatic disease, I knew I wanted to get to the end of it with as little regret as possible. Walking away from my marriage was the first step in that direction. I may eventually survive this disease, but my marriage did not.