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A Couple's Journey

Article date: July 4, 2003

Beth and David Savard

Her cancer was a challenge that had to be met; the stakes were her life. We had to beat it for her and for our two-year-old son, William. But, because I kept things in, she thought it didn’t affect me.



Cancer sent Beth and David Savard to the brink of divorce. He’s a go-with-the-flow numbers guy who sees problems as challenges to be conquered. She wears her emotions on her sleeve and processes each step of the journey. Individually, they possess the resources necessary to make it in life. But their five-year marriage almost didn’t survive her breast cancer diagnosis at age 29.

“My relationship with my husband was OK before the diagnosis,” said Beth Savard, of Methuen, Massachusetts. “But afterward, I felt he put up some walls that were hard to leap over. I couldn’t deal with that; I didn’t want to leap over them. I couldn’t concentrate on his problems because I needed to concentrate on my own. It became very strained."

Beth Savard talks about the near-destruction of her marriage now with the hope that her story may help others. Many couples confronting cancer are blindsided by intense emotions that have bled over into their relationships.

Savard describes her own diagnosis as a "double shock." She'd found a lump in her left breast and was told not to worry, it was just an infection. Minor surgery was scheduled, but when she returned to have the stitches removed, she learned the lab had found cancer. "We'd let our guard down. It was like being hit by a two by four," she recalled.

A month earlier, the Savards had started work on a sibling for their two-year-old son and put a deposit on a house. Those plans were scrapped and Beth had a mastectomy for stage II breast cancer, then chemotherapy. And, although David moved to the third shift at his field engineering job so that he could be with Beth during the day, within three months he lost his job.

'Love me or leave me. That's the way I am.'

Gradually Beth became angry that her husband didn't show more emotion. "I expected more sharing or to see that he was sad or afraid," she explained. "I took that as being cold. I shut myself off from him and it went from there." She added, "Love me or leave me. That's the way I am.

"I was diagnosed in September 1994. On Mother’s Day 1995, we said that we were going to get through this and then separate.”

“I am very pragmatic,” explained David Savard. “My father and brothers are the same. When things happen to someone, I’m less apt to talk, more apt to act. I look at a problem and try to identify the options. Her cancer was a challenge that had to be met; the stakes were her life. We had to beat it for her and for our two-year-old son, William. But, because I kept things in, she thought it didn’t affect me. When she mentioned separation, I didn’t take it seriously. I saw her anger and disappointment.”

During treatment, a hospital counselor suggested they sign up for an American Cancer Society We Can Weekend—a retreat for cancer survivors and their families. Beth was enthusiastic; David a little leery. “I went knowing it was going to be a huggy, touchy, feely weekend,” he confessed. “It wasn’t as bad as I expected. I saw others were having fights over their inability to vocalize what’s going on.”

Warming Relations and the Two Second Hug

"It gave him permission to share and to talk and to feel,” Beth related. "He had to make an 'I'm afraid' statement before the group, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, "I'm afraid of raising our child alone."

"Driving home from the weekend, we knew we could make it. He pulled over at one point and cried. He had never cried in front of me before.” And now, almost nine years later? “Neither one of us is afraid of saying something to the other, or of sharing our emotions, because they’re our emotions, wrong or right,” said Beth.

“We talk more,” agreed David. “I learned I needed to say what she needs to hear, to express my fears and other feelings. But even if I’m silent about something, she now knows it doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it.” Beth saw a distinct change after the weekend. "I thought, 'Wow, I'm getting some emotion back. Before, he was just flatlining me."

The Savards' married life has changed in other ways too. "We appreciate the small things now. We stop and enjoy the moments," Beth explained. "I have to be stopped to enjoy the moments more than he does. He'll stop me for a hug and I'll say, "No, I have to do this or that and he'll say, 'Two seconds.' It took me longer to argue with him than to share a hug."

Over Christmas 2002, the Savards experienced a death in the family. “My husband and son cried together. They’re learning how to share and to talk about how angry or upset or hurt they are,” Beth said. “The cycle has been broken.”

A Couple's Journey was first published in Living Well With Cancer, a newsletter of the American Cancer Society's New England Division. The Society provides support groups and services throughout the US. Our online search tool can help find services in your own community.