Diagnosed with cancer at age twenty-seven, I was surrounded by patients the age of my grandparents. I felt incredibly alone. After treatment I shed my hospital gown and hit the road, recording intimate conversations with other twenty and thirty-something cancer patients.
From the Big Apple to the Bible Belt, complete strangers shared with me the intimate details of their cancer experiences that they had never told their families, friends, partners, doctors or therapists.
Part travelogue, diary, and investigative reporting, my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer In Your 20s and 30s dusts the sugarcoating off of the young adult cancer experience.
Although cancer is no longer a whispered word, ‘cancer and divorce’ is still a highly taboo subject. While conducting research for my book Everything Changes, I found a dearth of resources for women facing cancer and divorce.
My greatest source of information came from intimate, one-on-one conversations where women shared with me practical tips and emotional details about facing the end of marriage and cancer.
1. Expand Your Legal Checklist
Divorce can wreak havoc on your finances and on the status of your health insurance; cancer is a time when you need these the most. Seek counsel from an attorney well versed in disability issues and health care law. This person may or may not be your divorce lawyer. A helpful resource is the lawyer referral service of the Cancer Legal Resource Center.
Speak openly with your divorce attorney about how your ability to care for your children during cancer may or may not affect a child custody dispute. If you receive disability or have another shift in your income, keep your divorce lawyer apprised of these change as they may effect your alimony settlements.
2. Reconsider Fertility
Divorce can redefine your desires around having children. Maybe you and your husband never wanted to have children, but perhaps you will reconsider parenting once you are separated. Perhaps you thought you were done having children, but you may change your mind if you start a relationship with someone new. Prior to surgery or treatment, discuss with your doctor how these regimens may affect your fertility. If your doctor does not know the answer (this is unfamiliar terrain for many oncologists) be a proactive patient and engage in your own research. Start by visiting Oncofertility Consortium or call their fertility patient navigator at 866-708-FERT(3378).
3. Rally Your Friends
It is a huge shift from relying on the support of a spouse to asking for favors from your friends. In times of health crisis you may not have the luxury of being humble. In my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide To Cancer In Your 20s and 30s (Wiley, 2009), 36-year-old colon cancer patient Richard Acker said, “I believe that there are times when it is appropriate to receive help, just as there are times when it is appropriate to give help. If you ever refuse to receive, you are unnecessarily putting a barrier between yourself and the love of others. It’s normal for humans to live in communities where there is love and relationship, and receiving is just as important a part of being in that community as giving is.”
Ask a reliable friend or family member to be the point person for coordinating your care. Sit down together and create a list of the tasks you need help with such as grocery shopping or rides to treatment. Visit Lotsa Helping Hands, a free web-based service that allows you to organize family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues in times of need.
4. Know You Are Not Alone
Cancer websites and pharma ads are plastered with pictures of confident couples tackling cancer hand in hand. The ‘cancer made us stronger’ story is not, however, a universal experience. Consider the facts:
The divorce rate for terminal cancer patients is higher than the national average
The national average divorce age is 30 years old; many young adult marriages are headed for divorce and cancer often becomes the final stressor that initiates the separation
Younger couples are less likely than older couples to rebound from cancer’s physiological impact on sexual intimacy
With few public forums that discuss cancer and divorce, it is easy to feel like you are the only person in America facing both of these challenges. Remind yourself that this is not true. Connect with other women who are also experiencing these simultaneous life changes. Contact Imerman Angels, a non-profit organization that matches up cancer fighters and cancer survivors for one-on-one support. What makes Imerman Angels unique is they do not just match cancer patients by disease type, but by life circumstances too. When you call, ask to be matched with another cancer patient who is also facing separation, divorce, or single parenting.
When I interviewed cancer survivor HollyAnna DeCoteau Pinkham, she spoke about silver linings. Hers came not from cancer but her divorce. “My husband and I got divorced. I am sure that my lack of communication must have had an effect on our relationship. But we had many other problems, too. When I got divorced, I was in this limbo of, Who the hell am I and what am I going to do? Everybody thinks that cancer is the most changing thing in your life, but I think divorce taught me how to grow and change probably more than the cancer did. It made me be strong inside and encouraged me to speak up for myself.”
Guest Author Kairol Rosenthal is a healthcare blogger and author of Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide To Cancer In Your 20s and 30s (Wiley, 2009).