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.
It’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.
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, I’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.