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Marriage & Cancer: A Fairy Tale It Ain't

6 years ago
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Elizabeth Edwards is living every cancer patient's nightmare.

Just as little girls dream of a gauzy, silken, floral, tiered, blue-sky wedding, when a woman hears the words "you have cancer," she begins to construct another sort of fairy tale.

No matter what kind of schlubs they were before our cancer, we imagine our husbands will rise to the occasion. After all, we too have no experience with cancer, and yet we must still prepare for surgery, shop for wigs we don't want and somehow manage to put one foot in front of the other.

In our fairy tales, our men are visibly crushed. They fall all over themselves, cooking meals, running errands and whispering the sweet not-so-nothing of "Let me do that for you, honey."

We imagine they will imply by their words and deeds that we are so precious to them that, should we succumb to cancer in the end, they will prostrate themselves on our graves until they, too, wither and die.

What we imagine they WON'T do is go numb and silent. Or retreat into work and pastimes. Or look off into space when we're talking to them.

Where the hell did we get this idea? Some bad TV movie we all saw?

In 2001, a few months before my own diagnosis of ovarian cancer, I came across these chilling statistics: Three out of four men leave their female companions within one year of a cancer diagnosis. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the stats for women were reversed. Three out of four women stayed with their sick men.

Not a happy thought to take with you as you're wheeled into surgery!

Two days after my surgery a somber doctor brought me the bad news that my cancer was "Stage 3." My mother couldn't be there, so my husband was left with the near-impossible task of consoling me.

I look back on that night and wonder why I didn't ask one of my girlfriends to come sit with me so my husband could go home. He was in the grips of the fight-or-flight instinct, and flight was clearly winning.

About three weeks into chemo, when my incision still hurt, I was bald, and, in the middle of the night, the infamous nausea had finally arrived. My husband and I held on to each other and cried.

This is our new life, I thought. This. I was certain that things would only get worse, and I watched for signs that my husband had already begun the process of checking out.

Overall I'd give him a B-. He was a little distant, but he didn't cheat on me. Then again, he didn't need to. PTSD and my imagination took care of that.

In our first post-cancer dinner out, I looked around the restaurant and found myself envisioning another woman sitting in my chair. I saw a vision of a year or two after my death, when my husband had "moved on," as they say in soap operas.

My poor husband. He had not done a thing, and yet I felt betrayed.

Cancer makes you feel vulnerable. And why not? The disease is literally trying to kill you. Since it's inside you, you can't run away. You're a hostage. You want to escape, but instead you have to humor your kidnapper. Negotiate. Hope. Pray for ransom.

The idea of your husband yukking it up with some babe in a hotel room while you bargain for your life with a homicidal maniac is

But nature is a cruel mistress. Animals often reject the injured, weak, deformed and sick because they're a magnet for predators. Not good for the group.

Some would argue that men are hardwired to abandon sick women, who are poor choices for passing on one's genes. But some would argue that men are hardwired to rape too, yet the vast majority resist that urge.

When I told my oncology nurse about the statistics of men abandoning their cancer-stricken wives, she was skeptical. She said she'd seen the opposite--couples getting back together.

As for my husband and me, we did finally emerge from the fog-bank of cancer and its insidious physical and emotional effects. A bit battered and bruised, but together.

When I hear stories like that of Elizabeth Edwards, I never lose sight of the fact that there but for luck, a great doctor and a marriage certificate that--wonder of wonders!--was indeed worth the scrap of paper on which it was written, go I.

Which is something women can't know that on their wedding days. We find out later. Sometimes much later, and at the worst possible time.

Filed Under: Woman Up
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