IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'd Been Married Less Than A Year When My Husband Was Diagnosed With Cancer

I'd promised “in sickness and in health.” I just didn't expect the sickness part to be quite so soon.
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Publish date:
October 23, 2014
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marriage, Cancer, newlyweds, Hodgkins

The wedding was beautiful. It was winter in Oregon, but we'd miraculously discovered a reception site where you could see green out the windows (apparently in Oregon there are two options for wedding receptions: outside or windowless dungeon).

We'd had an unexpected snowstorm the weekend before, but the weather had finally turned -- the sun even came out for the photos. My family, his family, our friends. So much laughter. And him. Perfect.

Six months later, I was crying in a parking lot in Pasadena, sweating in the 100 degree weather and blubbering into my cell phone, while my dad tried to make sense of my choked-up sentences. They'd found a tumor, six inches across, pressing on my husband's lung. They didn't know what it was. They didn't want to tell us anything until we came in person.

It wasn’t anything concerning at first. A nagging cough that wouldn’t go away. He eventually went to the doctor, who gave him a prescription. Sometimes these things happen after a bad cold, it should clear up in a week or so.

It didn’t, so he went back. New prescription. Same problem. This went on for a while, along with a handful of cough drops each day. It grew familiar, nothing to worry about, a refrain that accompanied waking and sleeping.

There were other things too. We’d go on hikes together -- small ones, no big elevation climbs -- that would leave him panting and breathless. We’d joke about his being out of shape. It’s amazing how easy it is to miss things. So many dots on a page that you never think about connecting. Who’s to know which details end up being the important ones?

It was an accident, the way we found out. He’d gone in to see another doctor about recent troubles with acid reflux. They took a chest X-ray. After taking it, the technician came in to the room.

“Tell me,” he said. “How’s your general health been?”

“Fine,” my husband said. “I’ve had a cough, but otherwise fine.”

“How long have you had the cough?”

“I don’t remember -- a couple months, at least. Why?”

The technician shrugged, looked away. “Just curious. We’ll be in touch.”

And then the phone call from my husband, one day after class in Pasadena. They’d found a tumor. They wanted us to come in as soon as possible.

We went, the two of us, holding hands, silent in the waiting room. The doctor was a cardiothoracic surgeon. You could tell behind the somberness he might have been a little pleased to have caught this. It was probably not something he found regularly.

“No way you have acid reflux,” he said. “What you have is a tumor, pressing on your lung.”

“What is it?”

“Could be one of three things.”

Medical terms. The doctor outlined them briefly, but they remained floating above our heads, without meaning. We tried to ask questions.

“Look, what you really need to do is see an oncologist for more testing. I have a colleague I can recommend, great guy. In the meantime, I’d recommend you go home, and don’t do a lot of research. It will make you crazy. Just wait and see.”

Just wait and see.

We went home and ate dinner at the kitchen table. I tried my hardest not to think about it, to think about anything else. But the thoughts kept creeping in anyway. We’d only been married six months. How much longer? What if --? Too many what ifs.

Later that evening, while he was getting ready for bed, I snuck into the living room and opened the laptop. Only five minutes, I promised myself. I had written down the three possibilities on a notepad, and I looked them up now. Three possibilities, ranging from not-so-bad to oh-God-please-no. I still didn’t know anything for sure, but I’d read enough to know that this could be bad. My husband called from the bedroom, and I slammed the lid of the computer, guiltily.

Two weeks of waiting, accompanied by a series of blood tests and two biopsies on the tumor. I tagged along for all of them, working early or staying late to make up for lost time. The first biopsy was especially challenging. He would have to stay awake, while they pierced his chest with a large, hollow needle and pulled out a sample.

My husband lay in a mobile hospital bed in the operating room, while the surgeon explained the procedure to both of us. Somewhere after the "large, hollow needle" part, my face flushed, I broke out in a sweat, and I realized, with a sharp and unmistakable clarity, that if I didn’t leave that room immediately, I was either going to faint or throw up all over the operating room.

“Ok, well, hope it goes well, bye!” I gasped, interrupting the doctor mid-sentence. He turned to stare at me as I hot-tailed it out of there. I made it out the door before my knees gave out, and I sunk to the floor against the hallway wall, head spinning. Several minutes later the surgeon followed me out, squatting down next to me.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“Fine. Sorry,” I said, embarrassed.

“No worries,” he said. “Let me help you up. Can you make it to that waiting room down the hallway?”

I nodded, and he escorted me down the hall, explaining as we went the medical rationale behind why I had almost fainted. I spent the next hour watching daytime TV and flipping through year-old magazines -- anything to keep from thinking about hollow needles.

Several days later the hospital called. The sample they had pulled hadn’t been quite big enough for a sure diagnosis, and he’d need to come in for another round. We both agreed that I’d stay in the waiting room.

After the second biopsy, they called again, this time to let us know they had the results. They asked when we could come in for a consultation. No, they couldn’t tell us anything over the phone. More waiting. More pretending to live life normally, and trying not to imagine what might come next.

We sat again in a chilly hospital room, neither of us speaking. My palms were sweating, my breathing rapid. A large lump in my throat threatened to lead to tears, but I was determined. No crying. Not yet, anyway.

I stared at the scuffs on my shoes, bounced a knee up and down, trying to keep warm. Finally the door opened, and a middle-aged man in a white coat entered. He had a slight paunch and dark circles under his eyes. He shook our hands, and I wondered if in the future I would remember his face with sadness or relief. He spoke quickly in a clipped voice, serious, sympathetic, straight to the point.

“Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” he said.

We stared at him. I couldn’t remember which one of the three things that was. Was it even one of the three things?

“So is that -- ” my husband trailed off.

“It is cancer,” he said. “But you’ll be fine. This is very treatable. You’re lucky.”

It was a refrain we heard often at the hospital, while in line for blood work, or sitting for eight hour days while drugs dripped slowly from IV bags into my husband’s veins. If we got there early enough, we could get our own little room. There was a row of them, separated from the rest of the floor with sliding glass doors. Otherwise, a big chair. He’d sleep, or watch movies. I’d do homework, read, look for nurses when he ran out of saline solution or needed another blanket.

“You’re lucky.”

And in the hospital, we were. Chemo until Christmas, radiation until Valentine’s Day. There were others in the hospital whose treatments had no end date.

“We’re lucky,” we kept saying, while his hair and eyebrows fell out, and his face thinned, eyes growing large in their sockets. His white blood cell count plummeted, leaving him with a weakened immune system, and he worked for an afterschool program: lots of kids, lots of germs. He had to stop. Nothing to distract him from the nausea, while I went to work and he stayed at home, waiting. So much waiting. But, we joked, at least the cough was gone.

The last day of chemotherapy was two days before Christmas. He was exhausted, and giddy to be finished. We travelled home to visit family, relishing the break from our new reality. After the holidays, it was time for radiation. Which seemed to be better than chemo, hardly any side effects at all, until after several weeks it hurt to swallow, and he was reduced to drinking smoothies and speaking softly. But that too, ended, after eight weeks, just days before his 26th birthday, two months after our first anniversary.

It’s been five years now, and the cancer is still in remission. Life moves on, other things happen, and it’s tempting to block out those early memories, to forget that that was the first year of our marriage -- the smell of hospitals, the quiet hours of waiting, the thinning hair and eyebrows.

Sometimes when going through old photos, I’ll come across one from that year, and pause. I’ll remember the refrain of the doctors, the nurses: “Hodgkin’s? You’re lucky.” And I’ll look across to where my husband is typing on the laptop, or watching the game, or just being goofy, and think, Yes. We were.