To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health…
We’ve all heard these poetically crafted vows at one time or another, reminding us that marriage encompasses a commitment that is expected to be valued no matter what the circumstances. These vows may even have the potential to convince some people that the journey of life may be richer, or perhaps less challenging to face, with the support of a partner.
Tara Parker-Pope’s recent New York Times publication follows this kind of logic, focusing on the influence having a spouse may have on those diagnosed with cancer. In her piece, “Marriage May Aid In Longevity,” she explains how scientific research shows that married cancer patients often live longer than single patients, suggesting that the practical and emotional support that a spouse is able to offer may facilitate a patient’s treatment and potential remission.
While strong outlets of support are undoubtedly critical to a patient’s fight against cancer and that a support system is expected to be naturally established within a marriage, what also needs to be recognized is how cancer inevitably changes traditional understandings of support and relationships.
With the institution of marriage come ideological roles that are often ingrained in the ways husband and wife live. (Keep in mind, Parker-Pope’s article only focused on heterosexual marriages). Think about the role of the husband, for a moment. When picturing the typical, nuclear family, what comes to mind when describing a husband? Provider. Breadwinner. Man of the house. Father. Family man. All of these roles are rooted in being supportive and are at risk of being altered when a husband is diagnosed with cancer.
One of the most recent examples of this has been witnessed by millions of people upon watching the hit series, Breaking Bad. In the show,Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to make and sell methamphetamine, justifying his life of crime by consistently emphasizing his need to financially secure and provide for his family before cancer takes his life.
Walter White’s diagnosis truly forced him to reflect on his roles and responsibilities as a man and a husband, pushing him to gain as much stability as he could for his marriage and family, due to the fact that he would only lose more and more control over his health. In his case, he felt that cancer was a threat to the support he was obligated to give his family, thus driving him to gain it in any way he could, even if it meant doing it illegally. Meanwhile, he almost always refused support from other people, even if it was coming from his loved ones.
While “Breaking Bad” is clearly an extreme story of one man’s transformation after being diagnosed with cancer, it still recognizes that emotional and logistical support is not always clearly mapped out within an existing marriage when one spouse is diagnosed with cancer. Support means different things depending upon who has the cancer and how “support” is translated through the lens of traditional marital roles.
As Parker-Pope’s article embraces the benefits of having support from a spouse, we cannot ignore the ways in which cancer, or other illnesses for that matter, skews the dynamics of what we love and aspire to have in a relationship. It is important here to strive for continued support and caring within the relationship when cancer or other illnesses challenge that system.
Danielle Adam, Blog Editor