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Marriage During a Child's Cancer

One of the little talked about aspects of what happens when a child has cancer is how it affects their entire family and possibly their parent’s marriage. Such a shocking diagnosis can bring a family together or tear it apart.

Deborah Raiees-Dana thought her marriage to her “best friend” was solid until their 7-year old daughter was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at age 7.

"Initially, we grew closer," she said of her and her husband as they faced their daughter's grave diagnosis. "I was married to my best friend, and I thought we had a good, strong marriage.”

But over time, as her husband continued going to work and looking after their other two children, she devoted most of her time to their sick daughter. "I'd be there for most of week," Ms. Raiees-Dana said of staying at the hospital where her daughter was being treated. "The time apart, the distance between us, our different religious faiths, were all factors in the end of our marriage."

Where to Turn?

She looked for resources on how to save her marriage during a time of coping with a child’s cancer, but could not find anything written about it. "I read everything they gave me," she said. "There was information about what to expect for the coming season, as far as school, siblings, her health, how to make sure we were not spoiling one of the kids, but nothing that mentioned how the marriage would be affected."

The next few years were incredibly difficult as the couple separated, divorced and their daughter succumbed to her cancer at age 10. “There was all of this energy going toward saving my daughter's life, but nothing going toward saving my marriage," Ms. Raiees-Dana said.

Ms. Raiees-Dana wrote a paper titled "Keeping Your Marriage Together When Your Child Fights for Life" that is still posted on the Arkansas Children's Hospital website. "Part of why I wrote this is so people can be prepared," she said. "If at least you know what's coming then you're not thrown off balance."

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the American Childhood Cancer Organization has online resources for families.

Everyone is Different

There have been studies on the survival rate of marriages that are put to the test with a child's serious illness. The latest such study out of Denmark determined that these couples are no more likely to split up than others. Ms. Raiees-Dana said she is aware that some marriages can become stronger after a child's cancer diagnosis.

"It affects every marriage differently," said Peggy Gibson, whose daughter was 23 years old when she died six months after being diagnosed with a highly-malignant brain tumor. "Dave and I decided early on that we're not going to let that happen to us. That would be terrible to let that be part of the break-up of a family." The couple, who also have adult twin daughters, has been married for 54 years.

The Gibsons turned their stress and grief into a service to others after joining The Compassionate Friends a support group for families after the death of a child. They are now invited to speak to medical staff at different hospitals to offer tips on how to communicate with families who have an ailing child.

There is no single formula for how every couple or family should behave when a child is diagnosed with cancer.

"The child's illness gets so magnified," said Ms. Raiees-Dana. "Everything else goes on the back burner and relationships get pushed off to the side. Some of it is understanding lack of sleep, understanding that one person is a lot more silent, understanding the differences between how people grieve -- the what ifs and could haves -- as things are not normal anymore. There are gender and personality differences."

Ultimately, Ms. Raiees-Dana and the Gibsons recommend that parents who have a child diagnosed with cancer find some support, solace, or comfort outside of their own marriage as well. This might be from a hospital social worker or at their church.

"That other person cannot be a savior," said Ms. Raiees-Dana. "They might need to find someone outside of each other because they might both fall down."
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