The power of personal relationships in times of crisis
Cancer has a way of throwing life out of balance. So much can change in the wake of a diagnosis: your work life, self-esteem, relationships, daily routines, dreams and future plans. While the chaos may seem like the end of life as you knew it, many patients find that it’s the beginning of something else—a new perspective, a new normal, sometimes even new or renewed bonds with a someone important in their lives. Four couples share how their relationships helped them cope with cancer, and how their bonds strengthened along the way.
Love is strong
Chelene and Steven Logan met when he was a client at the hair salon where she worked. She was in her early 20s and still reeling from a recurrence of T-cell lymphoma. Fresh from the end of a long-time relationship, she wasn’t looking for love. “I kept asking, Why me?” she says of cancer’s return. “I already did the treatment, I've already been bald, I've already had surgery, and I've been healthy for over a year.” Then she met Steven. He had seen her around the salon, heard she was sick and began to ask about the progress of her cancer treatment, and whether there was anything he could do to help. “I asked her out to dinner, to the movies or would just see if she needed help with her medication,” he says.
Their friendship soon blossomed into something more. The connection took Chelene by surprise. “I never thought I would be with somebody while being sick, let alone fall in love with somebody,” she says. “Steven's support has meant the world to me. He has pushed me to fight. When I got diagnosed the third time, I was in utter disbelief. Steven was a calming voice who reassured me that things would be fine.”
He also encouraged her to get back up when she didn’t feel that she could. When her energy and will to continue treatment began to flag, Steven convinced her to try something else: a stem cell transplant. While Chelene was still recovering from treatment, Steven had another surprise: He asked her to marry him. Nine months after their May 16, 2015, wedding, Chelene calls her marriage “the greatest blessing.” “Steven’s love and support keep me going,” she says.
Two spouses, two breast cancers
Marilyn and Steve Blethen know firsthand how cancer can impact a marriage. Both are survivors of not only cancer, but breast cancer. Steve's diagnosis came first, in June 2008, after more than 30 years of marriage. Learning that he had cancer was difficult enough, but with breast cancer about 100 times less common in men than women, he also struggled with self-esteem and masculinity issues.
When Steve underwent a lumpectomy and reconstructive surgery of his left breast, followed by 36 rounds of radiation, Marilyn did what she does best. A former teacher, she took comfort in helping her husband recover from the toughest time of his life. “I tend to be a natural caregiver,” she says. “I was used to taking care of people.”
Five years later, just before Valentine’s Day, it was Steve’s turn to fill the caregiver role, when a routine mammogram detected cancer in Marilyn’s left breast. His own cancer experience offered Steve important insight into his wife’s struggles. The similarities of their diseases—the location, the side effects, the treatment—were striking, and influential.
Steve knew just what Marilyn was going through, what the breast exams felt like, how the radiation treatments weakened the body, how the lumpectomy could leave scars, not just on the breast, but on a patient’s self-esteem. “We were there supporting each other every step of the way,” Steve says. “We have always known that we had the full support of the other in pursuing these battles and in continuing to pursue the follow-up phases.”
Nancy and Rick Brazill found love at the most difficult time of their lives. When their spouses were undergoing cancer treatment at our hospital near Phoenix, Nancy and Rick met in the halls and waiting rooms, talking in passing about cancer, its treatment and their experience as caregivers. Within months of each other, Rick and Nancy lost their life partners—Rick after more than 30 years of marriage, Nancy after more than 44 years with her husband. At a time when few others could understand the scope of their grief, Rick and Nancy supported each other by phone and found comfort in their conversations.
At first, their talks focused on loss and grief. But soon, the pair discovered they had other things in common. With their children’s support and encouragement, Rick and Nancy decided to get to know each other better, eventually realizing that their bond went further than loss. They were married in April 2014, at a small church in Georgia, with our Phoenix-area hospital’s Chaplain Nick Hill performing the nuptials.
"We're very happy,” says Rick. “Do we still feel a loss? Absolutely. When anniversary dates come around or birthdays or death dates, there's some sadness.”
"But we talk about it," says Nancy.
"And that's another plus to the relationship," says Rick. “I can relate to what Nancy feels on those special days, and vice versa. She can relate to what I feel and what I'm going through."
Both agree that learning from past mistakes and experiences has helped strengthen their marriage. “Grief is the price we pay for love,” Rick says. “I don't think Nancy's grief will ever be over, and I don't think mine will ever be over. I think it will get easier, and our relationship is continuing to grow, which helps those times of sadness to get easier. But they will always be there, because the two people we lost were huge parts of our lives.”
In sickness and in health
Kyle and Samantha Stephenson’s relationship could be described as a whirlwind romance. Within a year of meeting on a Christian dating website, they fell in love and bought a home. When Samantha got the news that the lump she felt in her breast was malignant, she leaned on Kyle for support. “Love helped us get through that difficult time,” says Kyle. “We couldn’t have done it without love of each other and our family and friends.”
Four days after the diagnosis, Kyle proposed, as planned, refusing to allow cancer to derail their dreams. “When I was diagnosed, there was no question whether we would stay together,” Samantha says. “The only issue was when we should get married. We knew we wanted to spend our lives together. The cancer was an instance of life handing us lemons. We just knew we were going to be okay and stronger in the end for it.”
Married now for 18 months, Samantha says cancer has put “a perspective on things.” “It helps you love and appreciate the people around you more,” she says. “There’s a mutual love around you when fighting cancer. You don’t even have to discuss it. You just feel it.”
Learn more about Samantha and why she calls cancer a “gift in some ways.”