Saturday, August 9, 2008

Surviving Cancer, Surviving Affairs

So I wasn't entirely shocked at John Edwards' admission that he'd had an affair in 2006. Mostly, I was relieved that Elizabeth Edwards wasn't standing by his side. Maybe everyone learned from the sad spectacle of Silda Spitzer that the straying mate only looks worse when the spouse appears beside him while he makes his confession.

While most of the non-tabloid media attention has focused on how Edwards' disclosure might affect the presidential race, I've been obsessing instead on the connections between cancer, survivorship, sexuality, and relationships.

Now, I don't know anything about the Edwards' marriage. I believe that all marriages are deep mysteries - often enough to the partners themselves, and certainly to the outside world. I do know something about surviving cancer, however, and the still-taboo topic of how it can affect a marriage or other committed relationship.

The facts, as we know them, are that John Edwards had an affair in 2006 with a video producer for his campaign, Rielle Hunter. He has specifically said it occurred at a time when Elizabeth's cancer was in remission. It ended well before she was diagnosed with a recurrence in March of 2007. Indeed, he confessed to her back in 2006 and asked her for her forgiveness. She decided to stay in the marriage.

What follows is informed speculation. It's based on a mixture of my own experiences as a spouse of a two-time cancer survivor (a term my husband and I both dislike, because it falsely implies the experience is finite) and those of other couples who've dealt with cancer. In the interest of everyone's privacy, I've blurred some of my experiences with those of others.

For most couples going through cancer, the diagnosis and immediate treatment are a time of solidarity. The healthy partner supports and cares for his or her partner during chemo or radiation or recovery from surgery - or some combination of the above. The sick partner rallies to the extent physically possible and is grateful for support from every quarter, but especially from the caretaking spouse. You each marvel at the others' strength, and you're grateful that you have each other. (I realize a few spouses totally freak out, but I'm pretty confident that most react by drawing on their better angels.)

Then, abruptly, treatment ends. And you have to figure out how to rebuild your lives, and how to be a "normal" couple again. Nobody warns you about this. There's no roadmap. You might not even realize you're still on a major journey until you're already lost deep in the woods. No wonder lots of people's relationships founder.

Here are some of the ways the survivor can react. He or she can pretend everything is okay, which is right in line with the cultural script, but is bound to fail. He or she might fall into deep depression. Or act positively manic. Or be paralyzed with anxiety. Or try to make up for lost time by acting like a teenager. Or dwell obsessively on every bodily twinge. Or go on a fitness kick. Or any combination of the above, plus a whole kaleidescope of other possible reactions.

Through all of this, the overwhelming cultural message is very simple: You should be deeply grateful to be alive.

The post-treatment process of coping and rebuilding and grieving is more complicated, of course, if treatment has affected the person's sexuality. That's perhaps obvious for breast or uterine or prostate cancers. But chemotherapy often has medium-to-long-term effects on hormone levels and libido. Surgery and scars can lead to feelings of unattractiveness. I've heard anecdotally of prostate cancer survivors who became so depressed about their sexual losses that they took their own lives. So much for survivorship.

What's more, any form of cancer can result in profound alienation from one's own body. If your cells have risen up against you, how can you trust your own flesh? How can you revel in it again? And if you do find a way back to pleasure, will you still include your partner in it?

(That last question goes back to a woman I knew who'd had surgery for breast cancer, then got reconstructive surgery several years later. She was thrilled with her new shape. Soon thereafter she divorced her husband of 20 years. I don't know exactly what happened between them - they'd also spent years living in a trailer while building a house with their own hands - but clearly her "new" body played some role as a catalyst.)

The "healthy" partner, too, has to readjust, though he or she may not even realize this. Speaking for myself, I was so invested in the idea that I couldn't burden my husband with mundane frustrations that I bottled up a lot of resentments, and I had to learn again that he was strong enough to be an equal partner - that I didn't have to "protect" him constantly. I'm pretty sure there are lots of variations on these themes, too.

Both partners may be just sick to death of sickness. And that's the first thing my husband said when I mentioned John Edwards' confession. He said, maybe Edwards had an affair because he just wanted things to be normal again. Maybe he was tired of cancer and treatment.

My first thought was that maybe one or both of them just couldn't see a way to reconnect erotically after breast cancer. Speaking only for myself again, when I had a scare with an unclear mammogram - one that took months to clear up - I felt profoundly alienated from my body as a source of pleasure. And I didn't even have cancer, just a bad case of paranoia!

Maybe having an affair when your spouse has just faced down mortality is a way of affirming your own survival. Maybe it's a form of denial about your partner's mortality, and your own. This might be just an extension of the stereotypical mid-life crisis - but cranked up to eleven.

And maybe, with the pressures of raising two young kids and running for president (which I'd bet are only one notch tougher than raising two young kids and teaching at a university!) the Edwards just hadn't yet figured out how to be a couple together again.

In the end, why John Edwards strayed will remain a mystery to everyone outside his family, and that's only right. They deserve their privacy. A marriage should remain a mystery to everyone outside it.

And yet, while he publicly said he had an affair because he'd grown selfish while campaigning, I think his motivations must be more complex. No one comes through cancer treatment unscathed. Not the patient, and not his or her partner.

With this in mind, I don't think you have to approve of his actions to acknowledge that both he and Elizabeth were under tremendous pressure, and that his affair might be at least partly a reaction to their cancer crisis. That doesn't mean it was right. It's even possible he's just a horndog on the Bill Clinton model - though my gut feeling is that he's not.

I just think there's way more room here for compassion than for judgment.

Finally, I think this news may illuminate why Elizabeth Edwards decided to stay on the campaign trail after her recurrence was diagnosed, and why she seemed to arrive at her decision so quickly. As the AP reports:
In a statement last night, Elizabeth Edwards said that after a "long and painful process" she decided to stand by her husband. Mrs. Edwards called the affair a "terrible mistake" but said the healing process was "oddly made somewhat easier" after her diagnosis of a reoccurrence of breast cancer in March 2007.
First, it sounds to me very much as though the new diagnosis put the Edwards back into the "let's fight this beast together" mode. And secondly, Elizabeth had already decided to stick with John after he'd disappointed her. Cancer, at least, is impersonal in its cruelty. Having forgiven her husband for his deliberate actions, Elizabeth had already cast her lot with him. I can totally understand why she wouldn't let cruel but impersonal fate affect her loyalty.


edpipeline said...

Excellent commentary, and my wife and I are going through the cancer-sharing.

Sungold said...

Hi Ed. Thanks for the kind words. I could've written much more on this topic, but the post was already long.

I'm sorry to hear that you and your wife are going through cancer. You don't mention whether you're still in the treatment phase or already beyond it. I would just encourage you to keep communication open and be alert to when previously helpful ways of relating become dysfunctional. I wish you the best in coping as a couple and enjoying reasonably healthy lives for a long time to come.

edpipeline said...

Hi Sungold, I just had a radical prostatectomy a few weeks ago, which looks successful so far, but have to start my first chemo for follicular lymphoma in a few weeks. Yes, it is very rough on my wife, and the next few months are going to be rougher, but after 38 years together, we have been through a lot, so this is just another challenge.

Sungold said...

Wow, you're dealing with a combination of challenges similar to what my husband faced. I hope you're recovering well from the surgery. You may continue to see progress with recovery for up to two years, and perhaps even longer. (That's a positive way of saying that improvement will take some time!)

My husband didn't have NHL, he had Hodgkins lymphoma, which is usually curable; he's now 4 years out from diagnosis and things are looking good. (I'm superstitious about even saying that, for fear of jinxing us.)

I don't know what chemo you'll be getting for starters, but if your NHL is assumed to react to Rituxan, that would seem the best place to start. It's more tolerable than the more conventional regimens. I'm not a physician, but I do know that vincristine, which is commonly used in treating NHL, is basically poison to nerves - and your nerves are still recovering and regenerating after your surgery. Obviously your physician should know more about this than I do, but sometimes oncologists look only at the current problem and don't consider the bigger picture - so if you are scheduled for a regimen that includes vincristine (or any related drug, such as vinblastine) I would definitely ask about alternatives, especially in this first year following your surgery while your nerves are still healing.

It sounds like you and your wife are close and will be able to support each other in the months ahead. Yes, cancer can be hard on a relationship - but if I were the patient, I sure would not want to be single.

I'll be keeping you in my thoughts and wishing you a dose of good luck, which doesn't seem like to much to ask after the double-whammy you've had.

Take care,

Habladora said...

Thanks for this post, and for talking about the impact that illness can have on a relationship. When peaking into other people's lives (like we are with the Edwards family), it is easy - maybe even enjoyable - to judge. Thanks for reminding us just how petty and meaningless our judgments of others are.

Sungold said...

Hi Habladora. I still *do* judge to some degree. What John Edwards did hurt Elizabeth. It wasn't right. From her perspective, I'm sure it felt like being kicked while she was already down.

But it's possible to say he did wrong, and yet try to understand *why* he might betray a woman whom he says he loves dearly. He might still by lying about the money and the baby's paternity, but I don't think he's lying about still loving his wife.

hesperia said...

I'm really grateful for this post, as I'd been struggling with a great deal of unease about the general response to the Edwards "thing". At the very least, it's also unfair to Elizabeth Edwards to see her only as a victim. I've known several women (and one man) who have continued on in marital relationships after disclosures of extramarital relationships. As you say in your post, quite apart from the fact that we ought not to judge the strains that serious illness puts on a relationship, we can't know what goes on in intimate relationships that might make "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" something other than stupid.

Sungold said...

H Hesperia! I agree that Elizabeth was 1) treated unkindly here and 2) is not, primarily, a victim. She has chosen to take control of her own future. She is refusing to be a victim. Of course, John never should have put her in this position in the first place.

I think it's got to be possible to acknowledge that he done her wrong, but also inject a dose of humility into the easy judgments that people apparently love to make about other people's marriages.

Mollyfa said...

It is so funny to read this post. (funny strange, not funny ha ha). My husband and I have missed a few news cycles as we have been moving and just generally away from TV, but when I heard about this, I thought my reaction was strange. So many of these stories just make me shake my head in disgust, but this one seemed to have much more behind it, and I felt the disease most likely played a roll. Thankfully, I have no personal experience, but this just felt different. You were able to give me something to point to as you so often do, and say, see, this is what I was thinking.

Sungold said...

Hi Molly. I'm glad if I added a dimension to the discussion. Elizabeth Edwards' original announcement of her cancer came when my husband was in the ICU with serious complications from chemo, and I guess because of that I've always felt like her cancer journey intersected with ours.

I hope you're starting to feel settled again. Your househunt and move seem like they've been going on forever!