Surviving Cancer on Valentine's Day

February 9, 2017

If being married is thought to affect how a person survives cancer, Valentine’s Day is a good time for single individuals to reflect on not only lost opportunities, but also the possibility of hope for more than gifts of chocolate.

This Valentine’s Day, it is likely that many of us will either offer thanks for partners or wonder what it means to be alone for yet another sentimental holiday. In the world of cancer, being alone makes us think about more than the absence of heart-shaped chocolates.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, for example, I was separated from my husband. Late at night, I read self-help columns about cancer and divorce. Evidently, some estranged partners knock on a lost loved one’s door when they learn an ex is facing a health crisis. In some relationships, the strain of cancer leads to separation or divorce. Love is mysterious.

There may be individuals who appeal to spouses to return, at least through treatment, but I am not one to ask open-ended questions if she is not certain of the answer. Besides, when my troubles began, it was 2010. Ayal A. Aizer, Ming-Hui Chen, Ellen P. McCarthy, Mallika L. Mendu, Sophia Koo, Tyler J. Wilhite, Powell L. Graham, Toni K. Choueiri, Karen E. Hoffman, Neil E. Martin, Jim C. Hu, and Paul L. Nguyen would not publish their study on the relationship between marriage and cancer in the Journal of Clinical Oncology until 2013.

Hindsight is 20-20. If the World Wide Web had introduced me to an informative article suggesting I could be more likely to avoid metastases (not to mention death) ensconced in a secure relationship, perhaps I would have picked up the phone and made a stronger case for marriage counseling. Instead, I skipped Valentine’s Day during my difficult year after signing a divorce decree with a bald head, a silk scarf and a tearful heart.

But I am nothing if not resilient. Several years out, I continue to believe that being a solitary soul will not reduce my chances for long-term survival. There are always outliers. Although the study found that “unmarried patients are at significantly higher risk of presentation with metastatic cancer, under-treatment, and death resulting from their cancer,” there are many variables affecting survival along with other ways to nurture support systems. Then, too, I can buy my own chocolate.

Therefore, even if a partner is as important as follow-up care is to long-term chances for survival, a husband is not on my bucket list. Should one be? As each year passes, should I try harder to be less unmarried? Maybe I could try a personal ad: Self-sufficient Pisces who loves cats and peace and quiet seeks marriage of convenience to a good man whose devotion will guarantee that she is less likely to die from metastatic cancer. No smokers.

No, not doing it this year. Life goes on, though, if we are lucky. Maybe hope should spring eternal when it comes to both love and cancer. Think of all the movies about people with cancer who fall in love. It happens in real life, too. The positive thinking we do about surviving cancer just might have a ripple effect on how we feel about love, too.

Who am I to say? I am not Dear Abby. If I were, this would be my Valentine advice to single people with cancer: If a partner is on your bucket list, go for it. And if you are currently separated and going through cancer treatment, or your loved one is, pick up the phone. A heart-to-heart conversation might complement your cure. As the researchers named above have noted, “For five cancers studied (prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head/neck cancers), the survival benefit associated with marriage was larger than the published survival benefit of chemotherapy.” Happy Valentine’s Day.


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