cancer caregiver

Cancer Could Have Broken Us

In the two and a half years since my husband’s cancer diagnosis, being a caregiver has looked like many different things. It’s looked like a scared newlywed wife, a determined full-time nurse, a frustrated partner, a headstrong advocate, an overwhelmed secretary, a grateful friend, a frantic chef, a ferocious warrior, a protective momma bear, a stressed-out supporter–each day, week, month brings out a new identity. It’s a full-time job that no one prepares you for (not that there would be any way to truly prepare if you tried!). 

Our journey with cancer started 52 days after our wedding. There were a few signs that something was off, but nothing that left the thought that it could be cancer. We were 26 years old, living in NYC, ready to start our lives together. We had the typical plans that newlyweds have and the typical struggles that 20 somethings have. Cancer was something that older people got, right? Cancer was something that unhealthy people got, right? Cancer was something other people got, right? Not us, no way. 

When the diagnosis came, we spent a total of one day being gobsmacked and then decided to go into battle mode. We spent the next six weeks fighting on all fronts – chemo, radiation, nutrition, movement, mindset- we took control of everything we could take control of. Months went by, appointments became fewer and farther between, Tommy got healthier, and life “moved forward”. Who were we now? I didn’t recognize the person or the life I was living. We were so happy and grateful to be “done”, but I had no idea how to fit into the new identity cancer left behind.

After a while, I stopped trying to cling to my “life before cancer”. This experience changes you, and since you can’t make it go away, you get to decide how you let that change shape your future. You will never hear an “I’m glad this happened” in our house, but you will hear a “since this happened (and I can’t change that), I’m glad I’ve learned: blank”. There are perspective shifts that I am incredibly grateful for. I would have loved to come across them under different circumstances, but these were the cards we were dealt, so I’ll take the positives where I can find them. Shifts I have noticed and value: 

  • We don’t fight. How? We just don’t. When you are shown what true problems look like and are facing them hand in hand, the day-to-day ruffled feathers settle more easily. If we do butt heads, the length of the argument is a fraction of what it would have been in past years. Is not fighting normal? I have no idea! But I like it.
  • We make time for each other. Before cancer, we easily fell into the trap of “one more email” or “I’ll be there in a sec”. Time together seemed endless and the concept of our future so distant. Today, closing the laptop, or finishing a project later comes with so much more ease. We do not take time together for granted. I’ve learned by living this way that the emails really can wait, and fun is more important than deadlines.
  • We have no fear. (Read that as “we have so much fear, but it’s isolated to a specific area of our lives”.) There are so many things that would have stressed us out, or would have caused hesitation due to fear in our professional lives that no longer have an impact. I started a business while we were on unemployment and Tommy was deep in chemo. Was this an ideal time for a new business endeavor? No, quite the opposite, but I had no fear, and it worked. What could be scarier than what we were dealing with at the oncologist’s office? Little fears no longer shape our days or impact our decisions.

Some days it feels like we’ve been married for 10 years because of all the “life experience” we’ve tallied up. We have gone through moments, had conversations, and shared thoughts that married people decades ahead of us are more likely to have. It feels like we got a crash course on partnership. Trauma laid the foundation of our rock-solid support for each other, but it doesn’t define it. Our marriage is full of love and brightness. We have laughed more than we’ve cried and loved more than we’ve feared. We’ve held tight and let our union be the rope that keeps us tied in a sea of question marks. Cancer could have broken us, but instead, it made us a couple I am endlessly proud of. – Jessica Walker

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