Marriage and Cancer?

Taking steps to lessen marital stress. 

For better or for worse, Anna Cluxton, then 32, and her husband, Brian, then 27, discovered a change in a breast lump in early 2001, barely a week into their marriage. In fact it seemed absurd: A healthy, young Midwestern couple forced to deal with a seeming annoyance that Anna thought was “probably nothing.” 

Only it wasn’t. The “nothing” they’d believed was a cyst instead was stage 2 breast cancer. And as Anna recalls, she hadn’t even written her wedding gift thank you cards yet. She also remembers thinking, almost immediately: What if her new young husband couldn’t handle it all—including a mastectomy?

“I don’t think he ever thought about leaving me,” she says. “I told Brian, ‘This isn’t what you signed up for’ ”—a sentiment he immediately quashed. Today, nearly seven years later, they are doubly N.E.D.: no evidence of disease; no evidence of divorce. 

The numbers are imposing. If up to 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce for a myriad of non-cancer-related reasons, it’s easy to acknowledge the extra stress cancer imposes upon even the strongest couples: loss of routine, loss of dignity, loss (or erosion) of job security, insurance, and savings. Plus a loss of romance and intimacy, amid all the pain and uncertainty. Having some key tools or talking points with which to cope can make a huge difference in both quality of life and quality of relationship.

Terrence Real, LCSW, a Boston-area couples therapist and author of The New Rules of Marriage, urges couples in various crises to air their darkest of feelings early on. “It’s OK that she feels he may leave her,” he says. “And it’s OK for him to say, ‘I’m not going to.’ ”

In fact, most couples, for lack of such expert guidance, choose a “safer” course of action. “One of the things I tell people over and over is, feelings don’t hurt you, but running from feelings can kill you,” says Real. “In our culture, we don’t seem to understand the difference between feeling something and behaving on it. We think we have to deny the feelings—even those as dark as [thinking about] divorce—or we fear we might go there.” But it turns out confronting those fears helps couples to avoid realizing them, he says. 

Support groups for both patients and couples are now routinely offered at cancer centers and hospitals nationwide. For those who prefer anonymity, online therapy-oriented resources for couples are offered by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (, People Living With Cancer (, CancerCare (, and the American Cancer Society (, which offers audio and video “talk shows” on its Cancer Survivors Network ( of couples reconnecting and survivors who’ve divorced.

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