A Couple’s Cancer Journey Reversed in the Blink of an Eye

Heal, Heal Spring 2022, Volume 10, Issue 1

Actress and comedian Jessica St. Clair and her husband, Dan O’Brien, share their roles of partner and parent, but also patient and cancer caregiver, as their roles were reversed in the blink of an eye.

Jessica St. Clair and Dan O’Brien, who met in an improvisational comedy group, have been through a lot together — dating, marriage, work, parenthood and surviving cancer.

St. Clair received a diagnosis of stage 2b breast cancer in 2015. The writer and producer underwent a double mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy and radiation. And she marked her six-year anniversary of being cancer free in September 2021.

For many people, their last day of treatment is a happy one, but on the day of St. Clair’s final treatment, O’Brien received a diagnosis of colon cancer.

“So we kind of perfectly pivoted from Jessica’s experience as patient to being a caregiver and in my case going from caregiver to being a patient,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien, who is a playwright and essayist, had two colon resection surgeries, four months of chemotherapy, liver resection and two more months of chemotherapy. He has been cancer free since the end of 2016.

Feeling Angry — And Lucky

When O’Brien received his diagnosis, he and his wife were angry because instead of celebrating St. Clair’s milestone, they were facing a new round of cancer treatments.

LISTEN: In Sickness and in Health: When Both Partners Have Cancer

“It was a nightmare. And I think … it’s a cliche to say something feels surreal, but there was an unreal quality. … To have that happen sequentially, on the day of her final infusion, was shocking, absurd, numbing,” O’Brien recalled.

However, they both also felt incredibly lucky. Not only did they have great doctors and successful surgeries, but they had each other and everyone around them.

St. Clair met other women with cancer who were in the last part of their treatment. It was good for her to see that other people who had the same experience were able to live a normal life after treatment, she said.

“For me, even though it seemed unreal and impossible, knowing that somebody was living a good life (after treatment) was a real light in the dark,” she said.

For O’Brien, his beacon of light was his wife, who had already experienced everything he was going through. She was able to coach him through treatments and side effects and help him process his feelings, which made it easier on him, he said.

“I think I had an easier job in some ways than Jessica. … I tried to be there for her as a loving spouse, trying to help her through what she was going through. But she had just been through something incredibly similar, so I was constantly aware that she was six months further down the road and could tell me, ‘Oh, I felt the way that you’re feeling today on your fifth round of chemo. That’s similar to how I felt. Look at me today, I’m up and about, and I’m living a normal life.’ And that was tremendously helpful,” O’Brien recalled.

Making Sense of the Chaos

St. Clair said she didn’t realize how difficult it was to be a caregiver until she was one. There is an emotional toll not only on the patient but on the caregiver as well.

“Everybody is thinking about the patient — they’re fighting for their lives and they’re in a lot of physical pain. But for the caregiver, it’s an extreme emotional toll because (they) are usually the one doing the housework and the cooking and the cleaning and the caregiving of kids. And in addition, you are taking care of another adult person, which is really difficult. And then add to that you are terrified. But you know that if you share how terrified you are with your partner, then that will make them more afraid. … I had to really keep a lot of that to myself, and that can feel really exhausting,” St. Clair said.

O’Brien agreed — when he was the caregiver, he never wanted to burden his wife with how he was feeling. He found comfort in therapy and writing during that time. During her treatment he started writing a book of poems, “Our Cancers,” which he finished during his treatment.

“That was a way for me to try to make sense of the chaos of illness, out of the uncertainty of illness, (and) I’m sure there is a self-soothing or self-therapeutic aspect to it. But you know, I remember sharing those poems with Jessica during her treatment as a way to try to overcome what Jessica was talking about, where … you don’t want to burden each other with too much fear or anxiety. But at the same time, you need to try to keep communication open, you need to try to keep intimacy alive, emotional (and) physical intimacy too. … By revealing our fears, it was easier to also talk about what we were hoping the outcome would be, and it was a way to keep (our) bond strong,” O’Brien said.

Saying Yes to Life

And not only did they have each other to care for, but they also had their daughter, Bebe, who was not yet 2 years old when St. Clair received her diagnosis and was 3 when O’Brien received his. Since their daughter was so young, they decided to not go into the details with her about their disease.

“There were certainly times, especially with my treat­ment, where we had to explain that I had a boo-boo after surgery, but we did try to really keep it from her because it seemed like it was just too difficult for her to under­stand,” O’Brien explained. “You never know what kids are absorbing emotionally. And we were aware of that. But we didn’t want her to have to try to understand the full implications of what we were going through.”

He added that having a child “increased the stakes in a horrible way,” because they didn’t want to imagine such a young, vulnerable child losing not just one but possibly two parents. It was a “nightmarish scenario,” he said.

But Bebe became their motivation. They still had to take care of her, get her to school and arrange for playdates. O’Brien said it made him feel grounded, and he was striving to live for her.

St. Clair explained that their family adopted the motto “Heck yes, life” during her treatment and said that “any opportunity for joy that we’re presented with, we’re going to take it.” They lived that out and went to Disneyland the day before St. Clair's mastectomy and booked a trip to Ireland after O’Brien’s treatment.

“I feel like it’s really informed us as parents with Bebe because we really know the secret that life is short and that you should try to enjoy yourself no matter what,” she added.

She explained that they are better parents after having gone through this. They feel lucky that their daughter was so young, and their hearts go out to families with older children who are more aware of what their parents with cancer are going through, St. Clair said.

Using Inspiration and Creativity

Both St. Clair and O’Brien tapped into their creative side as therapy during their journeys. O’Brien had his writing, and St. Clair started a podcast. She also wrote the last season of her television show, “Playing House,” which aired on the USA Network, with her best friend about the journey through breast cancer.

“It’s a great way to tap into the emotions that are underneath it all. I think when you’re doing something like art, or dance or even exercise, it’s like your conscious brain can take a break. And some­times I think those deep emotions really do need to be experienced,” St. Clair said.

O’Brien said they wanted to use their skills to make something meaningful out of their journeys. For them it was expressing themselves through the arts and writing, but for others it may look different.

“I think the question is: What can you do to help people connect to people, create connections, create support? Because that (comes) back to you. In our case, it happened to be writing a collection of poetry or Jessica writing an entire season of a TV show about her experi­ence or (her) new podcast. But for anybody else, it could be through teaching, it could be through activism,” O’Brien concluded.

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