On every cancer journey we need a strong support group to provide strength, acceptance and love — for one patient with cancer their spouse stepped into that role and beyond.
Sarah and I are racing the sunset at La Jolla Cove, just north of San Diego.
We run up the beach, kicking up sand with bare feet. Then we stop and turn and the orange glow nearly blinds us, consuming the calm waters of the Pacific. When the sun dips below the point of land, we run further up the beach and watch it disappear again.
The sun and the warm breeze are a pleasant break from the winter back home in Maine.
Sarah closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and smiles. It’s the smile I first came to love when we were just kids — 16-year-olds walking the halls of our high school, making mixed tapes, with our entire lives ahead of us.
College, a marriage, careers, two daughters and 26 years later here we are still walking together.
That smile, though. There haven’t been enough of them, for either of us, over the past two years. There’s been too much sadness and fear. Too much burden on Sarah’s shoulders, more than any spouse should have to carry.
We didn’t come to California on a normal couple’s vacation. We came to meet with an oncologist at the University of California San Diego, as part of our quest to save my life.
In March of 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Our daughters were 12 and 10 years old at the time. Everything we thought we knew about the way our lives would play out, and the security we felt in our future, went out the door.
In a span of less than two years, I’ve had three major surgeries, conventional chemotherapy and then transitioned to my current regimen of immunotherapy.
I’ve had to add the title ‘patient with cancer’ to my list of descriptors. Through the surgeries and side effects of treatment, I found myself in need of help that I had never needed before. And Sarah was thrust into an equally unfamiliar role as a caregiver. We’ve fought to find a new equilibrium — a balancing of roles that would allow us to navigate this cancer gauntlet intact as a couple. I guess you could say it’s been messy and beautiful at the same time.
I give myself 10 percent credit for keeping us intact. Sarah gets the rest. We are together because of her love, patience, resilience and downright refusal to give up on me.
For much of 2018, I retreated inward and was consumed by dark emotions, as I slogged from surgery to surgery. I couldn’t bear the idea of dying and abandoning Sarah and our girls at such young ages. The depression became clinical. In that sadness, I wasn’t able to truly live. At some points, I practically begged Sarah to let me go. Sarah’s family owns a remote camp in the wilderness of northern Maine, and I wanted to go there by myself, where my cancer would be mine alone and I wouldn’t be a burden on my family and friends.
Sarah refused. Instead of letting me go away, she carried me. She carried all of us. She took care of the household, the girls, all the while working a stressful full-time job as an assistant principal and making sure we had health insurance. She even finished her master’s degree in educational leadership.
Sarah had help from many people, including our family, friends and her professional community. Their support has been incredible. But on a day-to-day basis, down in the muck of dealing with the physical and emotional fallout of stage four, it was Sarah at work in the trenches.
Because of her, I was able to make a remarkable comeback. I had mourned the loss of my former self and began to embrace a new self, which in some ways emerged more loving, more present and more capable than I was before cancer. As I emerged from my depression, I re-established my roles as a husband and father. I’m still a patient with cancer, but that is at the bottom of the list.
As a writer, editor and communications consultant, I’m re-focusing my work in the field of healthcare and cancer advocacy. I’m volunteering for several non-profit organizations, and I recently launched a purpose-driven company called Man Up to Cancer. My mission is to support men facing cancer, and the people who love them.
One component of the project is a men’s group on Facebook, where I’ve been able to meet hundreds of men from around the world. I’ve become an advocate and a connector, giving me a sense of purpose that I’ve never experienced before. Sarah and our daughters are cheering my work at every step of the way, and they are also contributing their own ideas.
Even though the quest continues to reach remission, and hopefully even a cure for my cancer, I live with joy most of the time. Don’t get me wrong. I still experience sadness, anxiety and other tough emotions. But I don’t dwell there. We laugh and play as a family. Sarah and I pull our hair out helping with homework and the teenage crisis of the day. In my mind, we are a loving and beautifully imperfect family.
When I was at my lowest point in 2018, I made a promise to Sarah. I told her I would do everything in my power to take care of her in the way she cared for me. I don’t always live up to that promise, but I take action toward it every day.
Sarah has never been one for public displays of affection. So, she’ll have to forgive me for writing all of this and sharing it with you.
All those years ago, at age 16, we didn’t predict our love story would last so long, and if we did imagine spending our lives together, we certainly couldn’t have predicted that cancer would threaten my life at a relatively young age.
Sometimes, in the quiet of night, after the girls have gone to bed, I ask Sarah a question.
“Would you do it all again? Would you, if you knew this would happen?”
She never hesitates.
“Yes,” she says.
“Yes,” I say back to her. A million times yes.