My parents took their wedding vows on Dec. 17, 1973. I admire the love they shared, and model my own marriage after theirs. They were soulmates who lived and breathed for each other. One could say that when couples face a serious illness, the sickness becomes a test of true love.
My mother could tell you mesothelioma can solidify a marriage. When doctors diagnosed my father with the deadly disease, she found it tested the strength of their relationship. She endured his illness alongside him, and their love never wavered.
But my mother can also tell you that being a primary caregiver isn’t for the faint of heart. His will became her will, and she dedicated every waking moment to care for the man she loved. She was good at it, too. They had a rock-solid marriage, but Dad’s battle with mesothelioma eventually took its toll.
Mesothelioma Changes Roles in a Marriage
Spouses often take on the role of caregivers when their partners become sick. My mother wouldn’t have had it any other way. But the changes that accompany a mesothelioma diagnosis can affect a couple’s intricate dynamics.
Sometimes those changes are too tough to endure.
Anne Coscarelli, director of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, wrote an article in 2005 about the ways illness impacts marriages. Some of the changes that commonly present negative consequences include:
- Changes in family dynamics: Sometimes family members change roles to provide care for their loved one. Husbands and wives become caregivers.
- Changes in finances: Cancer patients sometimes stop working to treat the illness, and caregivers may cut back on their own jobs to care for their loved one.
- Stress: Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is stressful for patients and their families. The stress associated with serious illness may overwhelm people.
How Mesothelioma Impacts Support Systems
When cancer alters the dynamics of the family roles, inner support systems also change.
Coscarelli explains the primary caregiver becomes the emotional support for the patient. When my mom served as my father’s caregiver, she was more active in her emotionally supportive role.
As a patient becomes more reliant on their caregiver, this can also alter the support roles in their relationship, Coscarelli asserts. For example, a wife acting as a primary caregiver may not turn to her husband for the support she needs as she did before the diagnosis. Inadequate emotional support can adversely affect relationships.
Caregivers sometimes overlook their own emotional needs and may feel they can no longer rely on their partner for support. It is important for couples to focus on communication and their original spousal roles, in addition to their new patient-caregiver roles.
Couples face illnesses as a team, and communication is a critical part of that team’s successful operation. Both partners need to feel loved and supported.
Expressing Appreciation to Your Partner
Caregivers do not have an easy job.
Balancing caregiving, maintaining the household and other responsibilities can be daunting. There are many small tasks that collectively amount to a whole lot of work. It is common for caregivers to feel unappreciated. Coscarelli says feeling unappreciated can have negative repercussions.
Similarly, the partner who is also a patient might face changes in physical ability. I know my father struggled when he was no longer able to work. His inner battle with ambition and ability took a toll on his emotional well-being. At times, he felt as though he wasn’t capable of doing anything anyone else could appreciate.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”1 Corinthians 13:7English Standard Version
However, my parents found new accomplishments to admire about each other. Mom would tell Dad how important his guidance and support was to her, and Dad would reciprocate her notions of love and support.
When partners genuinely love each other, finding reasons to show appreciation isn’t too difficult. When couples communicate appreciation, it strengthens their marital bond.
The Evolution of Intimacy from Physical to Emotional
Couples sometimes experience changes in the ways they can physically express their love for one another.
Common symptoms associated with mesothelioma treatment, such as nausea, fatigue and erectile dysfunction, can inhibit physically intimacy.
Perhaps communication is the best tool to combat some of these problems. Couples should freely discuss their personal needs with each other while maintaining sensitivity to the issues their partner faces. It is also important to remember the physical expression of love isn’t the only way to communicate one’s spousal affections.
There are many tips to combat intimacy issues available for couples who want to savor intimate moments.
Each couple is different, and sexual symptoms can be a result of underlying health problems. It is important to tell your oncology team about your intimacy difficulties.
Making Your Partner a Priority
When couples face serious issues, such as dealing with cancer treatments and caregiving, it is easy to place the relationship on the backburner.
No matter what obstacles couples encounter, partners need to feel important and loved. Couples need to have fun, express affection and feel the closeness that fuels a romantic connection.
The struggle with couples facing mesothelioma is their togetherness may require redefinition. Couples may not feel like having a date night, but it is still important to make special time dedicated only to each other. When the needs of each partner become a top priority, it is easier to redefine how to express the love they share.
One evening after cleaning the dinner dishes, I walked into the living room to see my parents holding hands next to a fire roaring in the fireplace.
They gazed deeply into each other’s eyes, and I didn’t realize they were “having a moment.” I plopped down on the couch next to my dad, and knew I had just interrupted them. I sheepishly exited the living room.
That moment of quiet intimacy reminded me about the bond these two soulmates shared. Dad never let mesothelioma stand between him and the woman he loved.