First Comes Breast Cancer, Then Comes Divorce by Beth L. Gainer

Beth Gainer is a remarkable woman. After twelve years of caring for her physically and mentally ill husband, she found a lump in her breast. Double mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy… and divorce. She modestly says of herself, “I’m a writer and breast cancer self-advocate. I’m finishing a book called Calling the Shots: Navigating Your Way Through the Medical System.”

It is an honor and a delight to be able to provide another platform for Beth to tell her story.

First Comes Breast Cancer, Then Comes Divorce

“So, how is your relationship now that you have breast cancer?” asks the cancer wellness program intake worker.

My husband and I are holding hands.

“I would say it’s stronger; we’ve become closer than ever,” I tell her.

“Great!” the intake worker enthusiastically responds. “Cancer can strengthen the bond between couples. Luckily, that is the case for you both as well.”

I’m relieved. I half believe the feel-good lie I just told her.


Ask any of our mutual friends, and they will tell you, my husband and I are the perfect couple. As college sweethearts, we had a wonderfully close four-year courtship. Our wedding is beautiful.

20120908192813It’s the marriage that is a Ferris wheel run amok.

About a month after our wedding, my spouse develops severe OCD and paranoia. Four years later, he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that finds him visually impaired and even more mentally impaired. I am supportive, attending all his doctor visits and am proactive in his care. He stops working, but he refuses to apply for disability. And this is the point of contention: he won’t get the help he needs and we need as a couple. I arrange for a social worker to help him apply for disability, but my husband refuses to get help.

I am the caregiver for 12 years of our 16-year marriage. I must work two jobs to keep us financially afloat. I stay awake nights, thinking about the prospect of homelessness, not too far-fetched. If something should happen to me, I’m frightfully aware, I know we won’t survive. The stress is unbearable. I eat right and exercise, but sleep deprivation and worry and anxiety are downright unhealthy. Nevertheless, I am resolved that I will stay with him until death do us part. I do not believe in divorce.

A few months before our 15th anniversary, the unthinkable has happened: I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband promises to take care of me, but the tragedy is he can’t and he won’t – emotionally and physically. I beg him to get some income coming in, to draw from his mom’s inheritance, just so I could work only one job while I’m going through treatments. My oncologist wants me on chemotherapy at the same time as radiation.

It’s going to be tough.

I need to work just one job.

My husband promises he will draw from the inheritance so that my life can be a little easier while I undergo treatments for breast cancer. A few days later, he changes his mind. He is keeping all of the inheritance money, he says, because he has been planning to leave me for some time now and needs a nice nest egg. I cry and beg him to stay; I can’t face cancer without my life partner.

He stays.

But I still face cancer and its treatments without a partner.

Despite my situation, I’m still the caregiver, working a full- and part-time job and getting chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously. I seek emotional help from the American Cancer Society, Gilda’s Club Chicago, and the cancer wellness program. My husband accompanies me to the latter’s intake appointment.

He goes with me for the first appointment with my radiation and medical oncologists and the first chemotherapy session. I’m so panicked about cancer, and treatment, and doctors, that I don’t even consider the fact that my new team of doctors must think we are a great couple.

Everyone thinks we are a great couple. They marvel at the sweet man who is supporting his wife.

It is all an illusion.

My spouse decides that, after these initial doctor visits, I’m on my own. He never goes to radiation therapy with me. Monday through Friday, I drive myself to radiation, then take a train to work, then take a train back to the residential area where I parked my car, then drive home. A 12-hour day. This continues for 33 days. And I come home to someone unstable day after day.

I get chemo on Thursday, so I take Thursday and Friday off from my healthily accumulated vacation days. After his first and only chemotherapy appearance, he tells me that chemo is too toxic for him to be around. I tell him, “If you are afraid of your exposure to chemo, what do you think it’s doing to me?!” He doesn’t seem to care. Years of selfishness and mental problems have added up, and the toll is heavy.

I pay the price. In some strange way, so does he.

I do radiation alone. I do chemotherapy alone. I see my doctors….


I envy those patients whose spouses and family members have come to support them. Some feel sorry for me and take care of me during my treatment. A warm blanket. Apple juice.

I miss my husband, but things have been so bad between us, I figure I’m better off doing all of this alone. An employee from the American Cancer Society tells me, “Frankly, I don’t know how you’re even standing, given your treatment and work schedule.”

Truth is, I have no choice. I’m in survival mode; I will process what has happened to me later.
After treatment is over, I spend a year in aftershock. Our relationship is now severed beyond repair, and we are strangers to each other. We lie in bed at night next to each other, but we have nothing to say to each other.

During the year after my last treatment, I decide that I didn’t fight so hard to live just to be miserable for the rest of my life.

The marriage dies. It is already on the outs, but breast cancer hastens the inevitable. I still love my ex-husband; I always will. But breast cancer has weakened an already compromised relationship, and frankly, IMG_1289I’m glad the relationship ends. And that’s when I realize that divorce means my life is just beginning.

How has cancer affected your relationships? Feel free to share the good, bad, the ugly and the beautiful.


24 thoughts on “First Comes Breast Cancer, Then Comes Divorce by Beth L. Gainer

  1. The thing about a health crisis is that it forces you to take care of yourself. There is no longer energy for anyone but yourself. There can be love. And you can use your limited physical capacity for the care of others–but you have to make choices to sacrifice yourself for such others, and it sounds like that’s what you did. I think it’s healthy to finally say, I have given all I can and now I am no longer able to keep you afloat and survive, too. I have to keep going for me.
    I know it can be hard to let go. But I see from your story that it can be life affirming, too, and so wish you life! Thanks for sharing your story of hope for better days.

    • Thank you for your wonderful wishes for me. I so appreciate it. Your comment really spoke to me because once I had cancer, I had to make a choice: and I decided that I wanted to survive. It hurt a lot to let go of caring for my husband, but I did only have enough energy to take care of myself as best as I could. Since the divorce, my life has really seen great days. I have a freedom I never had before. Thank you for your comment.

      • I think you made the best choice. I have really learned who my friends are after my own experience with a cancer diagnosis. I did some very healthy spring cleaning. It’s good to get balance back, too.

  2. Thanks for sharing – I too am a carer, but we are retired – or rather DH is, and I am ‘piggybacking’ on the superannuation, so I am not compelled to work.
    I have made a point of saying that to care for him, I have to care for myself first. I now go to the gym once a week, walk, and also teach a hobby class once a month. As he is emotionally dependant on me. as well as, to a point, physically dependant, it has taken strength and determination to make these commitments and keep to them! This article has re-enforced my choices! Thank you.
    Blessings and Prayers

    • Hi Maxine,

      I love your attitude that one has to care for oneself before he/she cares for someone else. I am so glad you are taking such good care of yourself by exercising and keeping busy with the things you love. You are really an inspiration of what caregiving should ideally be — taking care of oneself, too.

  3. Out of ashes, God recreated beautiful You!
    Your experience, incredible as it is touches the core of my soul! You did all you could for
    the love of your life and yet he abandoned you
    when breast cancer hit! I love your resolve to
    See “a beginning” as a survivor whose testimony will touch and change millions!
    When is your book out? Thank you for
    sharing your life! Healthy Wishes!

    • Oh Philippa, what you wrote was beautiful. I think my situation is a lot like many people’s. I just felt compelled to share it. I was hoping my book would be out this year, but I’m still trying to find a publisher — and that’s more difficult than writing the book itself! Hopefully in the near future. 🙂

    • Eileen, yes I was reading this. Thank you for your sweet, kind words. I think we garner the strength we need to in order to survive. The survival instinct is quite strong!

    • Thank you so very much for allowing me to publish your post, Beth. Your story has so much to offer so many people, I’m delighted to have been able to help share it.

      I know the name thing is confusing; put it down to my addled brain. It goes like this:
      Knot Telling is my internet name. It’s a pun on I’m “not telling” you my real name, obviously.
      The blog is called Telling Knots, playing on the layers of meaning in the verb “to tell”.
      Clear now? No? Well, never mind! 🙂

  4. Beth I saw this on your blog initially and am thrilled that Telling Knots has you as a guest post!
    Your story is a powerful example of sifting through the rubble of cancer and rising like a Phoenix from the ashes. Thanks again for sharing!

  5. Pingback: Oh for Pete’s sake! (Breast cancer and Stress) | Hercules in heels.

  6. dear beth,

    it takes courage to try to garner clarity out of an on-going catastrophe, to truly make a decision that though painful, is neccessary, even though one lives in the hope that things will change. and even when the signals are being given loud and clear, it’s so hard to realize all hope is lost. i am so happy that your determination and desire to live trumped fear and hesitation. you are such a gift to our community, and i know there are others who will read your powerfully written story and feel they are not alone, then go even further and decide they must take care of themselves, first and foremost. i hope your life continues to be one full of relief and joy, fueling your independance with feeling proud of your accomplishments. thank you so much for sharing your incredible journey!

    love, XOXO

    karen, TC

  7. Karen, your words moved me tremendously. Thank you for reading my story and commenting. I’m hoping I can help others who are teetering between caring for others (in an unhealthy way) and caring for themselves. For me, it came close to ending up the other way around. I’m so glad I made the right decision for me.

  8. Thank you so much for telling your story. I had a very similar experience with my marriage and cancer. I found that my husband seemed to take my diagnosis and my emotional response very lightly, would go to my initial appointments with me and hear very different information. I started taking my sister along for appointments as I was afraid my mental state was impacting my ability to track information and it turned out that my spouse just wasn’t listening but insisted he was right. He minimized my feelings, missed information and was more concerned with the amount of work I’d be missing. I finally asked him to stop coming to appointments with me. Cancer gives us all kinds of lessons and perspective. The differences in my spouse’s and my values and priorities that were present long before the cancer- and something he was unwilling to change even after a year of therapy- were just something I was no longer willing have in my life.

  9. Well I think no matter how hard life is you should stay together, but my wife left me after her breast cancer,we had been together 43 years and it was my wish we would be together till death, but she became selfish and left me,I still can not understand why she did this but she has and im left feeling betrayed but im living in hope she will return one day, and her word will become good again otherwise whats the point in promises made to each other,people give up to easy and take the good bits and run when things get tough disposing of loved ones like empty milk cartons and that’s got to be wrong in my mind.

  10. Hello ,my wife had cancer six years ago,I cared for her every day,washed her fed her saw to her every need,she recovered,went back to work ,went on a three thousand pound cruise with a friend to celebrate her three years clear,I was happy for her encouraged her to do this saying it will let her see that there is still a life to live after having cancer but then she wanted to go on a holiday with her female friends every year and started going out with them more too.i feel as if I’ve been left behind,I do everything,cooking cleaning ironing shopping gardening driving.she is now six years clear we have had sex twice in six years it just isn’t possible anymore which takes away that ability to get really close to each sad and can’t see things improving.i think she is frightened that her life will be taken away at any moment so she is determined to live life to the full and enjoys being out with the girls more than with me because its more exciting being with a group.she says cancer takes away your free and easy thinking in terms of how long you will live.i see her point but I don’t know if I can support it much longer.

  11. Holy cow. I am in the same boat, and didn’t even realize it until recently. A nearly 30 year relationship is on the rocks, and I’m being blamed. I have the metastatic prostate cancer; she recently fractured her ankle. After three weeks of me providing round the clock care, being a punching bag walking on eggshells, and finally coming unglued from her lack of appreciation, she tells me our relationship is irreparable. A couple of weeks ago she said “just finish your six months of radium injections (for the metastases), and then we’ll split up and divvy up everything.” Today she said “I didn’t mean that, and I told you that.” She has no friends (NONE), no family, is estranged from her daughter, doesn’t work, and is jealous of success, looks and happiness…although she could have it all, since she is bright and intelligent, great looking, and has a good work ethic and is a competitor in dog agility. She feels she has supported me for the last nearly 30 years, and I have just been along for the ride, and now that she needs me, I didn’t deliver. I think God has kept us together for all this time, since there isn’t really anything else going on — we have not made love for 15 years, we have trouble talking about serious things, I have a lot of friends and interests, I run two businesses. I know what you mean, Beth, when you say “I will always love” your spouse — that’s where I am, but I don’t know how to live with her and keep the positive attitude that will carry me through to beating this disease. Tomorrow we go to a mindful based cognitive therapy pracititioner, and maybe that will help ease both of our pain. I’m a typical independent “tough guy” who does not “need” help, but it did help to get this off my chest, so thanks a million for that….

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