Cancer and Being Alone

In previous years, we have marked the day by going somewhere together to allow us to feel all the emotions in a safe space with no distractions. This year, we were feeling some very different emotions and had a wonderful distraction because on October 8th, 2023, we woke up the day after my girl got married.

I think it’s a dream a lot of parents have, for their child to meet that special someone to spend (hopefully) the rest of their lives with. When your child has had cancer at 27, the importance of experiencing that type of joy goes up a notch…or two. So when I look at my new son-in-law, who came into my daughter’s life in The After, I am not sure he understands how magical it is to me that he is all in.

Adrienne had some tough experiences with the dating world after breast cancer. She was ghosted a few times once her cancer experience came to the attention of her dating partner. But she knew being honest was the only way it could work and in her case, it did. I can’t help but think, though, that once again she was lucky, because it could just as easily have been the opposite.

We don’t often visualize this as the face of cancer. Most of the time in cancer campaigns or stories we see pictures of a couple supporting each other, or read about daughters walking with their mothers at fundraising events after having been by their side every step of the way. For some young people just starting on their journey through life, however, a cancer diagnosis can mean that they are facing the future, making decisions, recovering from surgeries and the emotional and physical after-effects of treatment alone.

Completely alone.

I know this happens to older cancer patients as well. If I measure my coping skills now, though, to what I was like in my twenties, there is no comparison. My ability to acknowledge my own limitations and ask for help from loved ones and outside organizations alike has grown exponentially in the last thirty years. My knowledge of what’s available, my lack of feeling less-than for needing to reach out, means I would welcome someone into my life to drive me around, to clean my house, to take notes for me when my brain froze. I have no student loans that would stop me from accumulating an emergency fund that could allow me to pay for support that I never could have afforded back then. And I have lived enough of a life that watching my peers’ lives move forward while mine stands still would not cause my heart to break.

I remember thinking after I watched Adrienne go through treatment for the year following her diagnosis that I didn’t know how people do it without support, both during and after. Sometimes, despite the gift of time, Adrienne and I still struggle emotionally in the aftermath. I cannot imagine carrying the mental load of that all by yourself and then trying to explain to a future partner who has no idea what it was like why there are some days that you can’t. That you just…can’t.

In most relationships, the people in them come with a bit of baggage and the couple does their best to accept or work through what’s inside to move forward with their union. My girl came with a stuffed-to-the-gills steamer trunk. Yet when I see how her new husband looks at her, how kind he is, how he is her biggest fan, I trust that if it happens again, he will stay all in. I watch him hold space for her on the days when she just can’t, understanding that holding space for her is the best he can do. I hope he knows what a big place he has in my heart and that I will be in his corner going forward as much as I am in my girl’s. That as long as there is breath in my body, he will never, ever be alone.

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