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How Breast Cancer Affects Your Marriage

Inspirational stories and tips for helping your husband even as you are adjusting to your body changes. From Dear God, They Say It’s Cancer: A Companion Guide for Women on the Breast Cancer Journey by Janet Thompson

Two Sisters Share
My husband didn’t handle the situation very well; he retired from USMC after twenty years of service the week before I received the cancer diagnosis. We had sold our home in California to move to Louisville, Kentucky, so he could work flying for UPS. Since my cancer was in stage four, I had to have a radical mastectomy immediately, followed by aggressive chemo and radiation. The doctors did not allow leaving California until after three chemo treatments, and then I continued treatments at my mother’s in Pennsylvania. When completed, I joined my husband in Kentucky. He could not accept me the way I was. I tried to get him to counseling, but he didn’t want to go that route and ended up divorcing me. I went to counseling for two years to help accept the losses in my life. I don’t know what I would have done without a strong faith in God. From the moment of diagnosis I knew from within that God was with me, and I would beat cancer. [And she did!] –Karen

After being single for fifteen years, I began dating a very nice man, David, at Thanksgiving 1986. Just three months later, I found a lump in my breast while taking a shower. With my hands and body covered with soap, there it was — as plain as day! I had no doubt it was breast cancer. My attitude was, “Let’s get this over with so I can get on with my life.” I phoned my doctor the following day, and he scheduled a mammogram and a consultation with a surgeon for me right away. The surgeon confirmed my suspicions. I had breast cancer. He recommended a radical mastectomy.

Then it was time for me to tell David, and I knew that wouldn’t be easy. I suggested to him that he go on with his life — to do his own thing — because I was unsure of what my future would be. His reply to me was, “I am as close to you as 99 is to 100. Case closed.” What a comfort to know he supported me and would be with me as I faced breast cancer! I had a radical mastectomy in February. The surgery was successful, and there was no recommendation for chemotherapy or radiation. I was done with treatment! Best of all, David and I got married in April!  –Martha

Mentoring Moment
As if talking about our breasts all the time is not embarrassing enough, we also have to consider how our surgery and treatment is going to affect others. For those of us who are married, the person most directly affected is our husband. I have heard a range of husbands’ responses. Grace Marestaing tells me that sitting in patient conferences she sometimes hears a husband refer to his wife’s breasts as “my breasts.” Technically and spiritually, that is true: “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). The New Living Translation even goes so far as to say the husband and wife have authority over each other’s body: “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband also gives authority over his body to his wife.” Some husbands might be inclined to interpret that verse to their own advantage; however, the same verse in The Message paraphrase says, “Marriage is not a place to ‘stand up for your rights.’ Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.”

Breast cancer is attacking younger and younger women, and some receive a positive diagnosis while engaged. The fiancé now must decide if he is going to honor the vows he will soon make to love his wife “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” At the breast cancer support group I attended, one woman told the story of her boyfriend of two years suddenly proposing when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that required a bilateral mastectomy. She was surprised and elated! The group also talked about a fiancé recently honored on Oprah Winfrey’s TV program for doing the same thing. These men are keepers!

Izzy was forty years old when she had one breast removed, and a nurse overheard her husband say to the doctor, “What am I going to do?” His concern was more for himself than for Izzy. On the other hand, Darlene Gee, who had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, says her husband makes her feel beautiful, and he loves her short hair!

Age often does not affect the husband’s delight in his wife’s breasts, and that is scriptural too. Proverbs 5:18–19 reads, “Enjoy the wife you married as a young man! Lovely as an angel, beautiful as a rose — don’t ever quit taking delight in her body. Never take her love for granted!” (MSG). An elderly grandpa who still cherishes his wife’s breasts may be devastated with the news she is going to lose them to cancer. He will need support and encouragement as much as a younger husband.

In a 2003 interview, the then-eighty-six-year-old actor Kirk Douglas discussed his depression after a stroke in 1996 that coincided with his wife, Anne, having a mastectomy. He said he is more in love with his wife now than when they married forty-nine years ago. Then he commented that they made love every night to give her confidence as she recovered from the mastectomy, and he plans to marry her again to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary, which I later read they did. I did the math; Kirk was seventy-nine years old when Anne had her mastectomy! I love that story.

Remember your body has suffered an assault, but his probably is still functioning pretty well. What can you do to help your husband? I know that is a tough question while you are justifiably preoccupied and probably overwhelmed just adjusting to your body changes. Quite often surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and drugs affect your libido. The last thing on your mind is sex, and, honestly, you don’t feel very sexy right now. There might be a season where it is not even appropriate to try having sexual relations. If you are like me, I was petrified of anything bumping or hitting my sore breast or frozen shoulder. You also may be nauseated and sick from chemotherapy or plain exhausted from radiation.

Our tenth wedding anniversary fell two days after radiation started — not very romantic. Well, actually, it was. There is a romantic bed-and-breakfast tucked away in Julian where we spent several previous anniversaries, which just happens to be days before Christmas, December 19. I prayed about it, and even though exhausted with radiation, the remodel, and the holidays, the Lord gave me a picture of rest and relaxation with my husband at this little hideaway. So on a hunch and a prayer, I called to see if they had a room available — they did. That was my confirmation we should go. My husband agreed. So packing a few candles and my sexiest nightgown, away we went. It became a very memorable experience for us. We made sure I had plenty of rest, and like Kirk Douglas, my husband made me and my sore breast feel very much loved.

If you have had a mastectomy and reconstruction, it is natural to feel a little hesitant and shy; but how about looking at your new situation with wedding-night anticipation? What will this be like, and what can I do to make it a good experience? Here are some ideas to get you started if you just aren’t up to thinking of any right now. Then when you feel better, add things that are special to you and your husband.

  • Keep the lights off or down low, and light candles.
  • Wear your prettiest nightgown.
  • If you are hesitant, wear two-piece nightwear and leave the top on.
  • Spray on perfume (keep clear of your scars or radiation areas).
  • Take a relaxing bubble bath, if medically allowed.
  • Play a soft CD in the background.
  • Let your husband know you are willing to give it your best effort.
  • Allow your husband to give you a careful back rub to relax you.
  • Ask someone to put fresh sheets on the bed.
  • Try to spend your day on the couch or another bed in the house — not the same bed you sleep in with your husband, so you won’t think of it as a “sick bed.”
  • If treatments and medication cause “feminine side effects,” consult your oncologist.
  • Make sure you are not rushed and have privacy.
  • If feasible and you feel up to it, take a weekend getaway where there is not much to do but rest and be with each other. The beach, a river, the mountains — you choose.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janet Thompson, author of Dear God They Say It’s Cancer (Copyright © 2006 by Janet Thompson), quit her secular career to go into full-time lay ministry, starting the Woman to Woman Mentoring Ministry at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. She is the founder and director of About His Work Ministries, also known as AHW Ministries, and is a frequent speaker on topics relevant to today’s Christian women. Janet has authored several products for her Woman to Woman ministry, including Praying for Your Prodigal Daughter. Janet and her husband, Dave, have four married children and nine grandchildren. They make their home in Lake Forest, California.

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