“Sam” and “Ellen” have been married for 42 years. They have had a good life together. They’ve raised 4 children and have 11 grandchildren. They’ve had their ups and downs but have always managed to get through the hard times, until now.
Sam’s diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer has really thrown them for a loop. They’ve just had their first visit with the oncologist, who was very nice and explained things very well. However, out of the entire visit, each of them only really heard one thing. Sam heard that treatment will make him impotent, and Ellen heard that the 5-year survival rate is around 30% (American Cancer Society, 2012).
Sam isn’t bothered by the survival rate. If he can’t make love to Ellen, though, he feels like he might as well be dead. Of course, he isn’t going to tell her that because they don’t talk about such things. Sam has never been a big talker. He likes to go for long walks in the woods with his dogs when he has something on his mind; he takes care of his problems by himself. If Sam were to tell Ellen how he felt, he would find out that Ellen would be very understanding. She would be happy to explore other ways to express intimacy with him. He would not be any less of a man in her eyes, which contrasts sharply with how he envisions himself after treatment, as no man at all. Also, if Sam shared this feeling with his oncologist, he would find out that many men feel this way. But, because Sam keeps things to himself, he doesn’t know any of this, so he suffers alone and in silence.
Ellen is terrified that Sam is going to die in the very near future. She cannot fathom life without Sam. He is her rock, her solace. She wants to talk to him about the cancer and how it’s impacting them but finds she can’t do it without crying. She knows it makes Sam uncomfortable when she cries, so she keeps putting it off. Besides, she doesn’t want to upset him. She wants to be his rock now. Sam doesn’t need to know how scared she is. It won’t help anything. It will just make him feel bad. So, Ellen tries to be cheerful all the time around Sam. She cries when Sam is not around and suffers alone and in silence.
Sam and Ellen go on like this, “protecting” each other, not “burdening” each other, and being “strong” for each other. They become increasingly distant. Are they really helping each other? What can we learn from them?
First, it is not possible to “protect” your spouse or partner from what is happening. Provided you and your spouse or partner have access to all the same medical information, there is nothing you are thinking or feeling that your spouse or partner probably hasn’t already thought or felt. Sharing your thoughts or feelings with them will not cause them to feel worse but will actually be somewhat of a relief to them for several reasons: 1) it will break an uncomfortable silence, 2) it will let them know that they are not alone in how they feel, 3) it offers a chance to clear up any misconceptions you may have about what the other is thinking or feeling, and 4) it will allow you to offer support to each other.
Also, by not sharing what you are thinking and feeling, you create more distance between you and your spouse or partner. You are prevented from getting the support you need at a time when you need it the most. You are also robbing your spouse or partner of the opportunity to provide you that support in a situation where that may be the only thing there is to offer.
Men often try to solve problems by fixing them. Women often try to make things better by being terrific caregivers—for example, cooking a favorite dish. Cancer is a problem that no one has control over. However, people do have control over whether they turn towards or away from each other as they cope with it. Don’t be like Sam and Ellen.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
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© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington
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