The thing about marriage is when it goes well and lasts a long time, people eventually get sick. That’s one of the really hard things about marriage: it’s fundamentally about facing illness and death. APW has been around long enough that we’ve had readers who have lost partners and other readers who have battled through terrible illnesses with their partners. But until today, we’ve never had someone who was brave enough to write about the process of having a seriously ill partner. So I’m deeply humbled and honored to introduce you to Ashley. Her husband is currently battling cancer, and she has the grace and strength to write about what she’s learning while they are still in the hospital. So let’s repay her with a love intervention. Whatever you do—good thoughts, prayers, visions of light—let’s blast them at Ashley and M today with mountains of our love. That, and read this, and go hug your partner, and think about what being together for life really means.
I met my husband (otherwise known as M) seven years ago when we were young and silly. M is a good ol’ boy from a small town about an hour from where I grew up. We got married this past April.
We started off our marriage excited for what came next. We had been settling into our new house and spent most weekends at the beach or on the boat. We were prepared for blow out season this fall with the Carolina Gamecocks. We’ve been having fun! We’re in no rush to have babies and have talked of how long we could put it off before we had to decide. As with most major life changes, people share their opinion. We rolled our eyes at those who said the first year is the hardest.
Labor Day weekend brought Hurricane Irene. We love extreme weather and as long as it didn’t come crashing in on us we figured we would enjoy it. We spent our weekend between Folly Beach and Edisto Beach. The storm breezed by and the Lowcountry got off easy. On the way home M and I talked of how lucky we were. We tried to decide what we would change about our lives if given the opportunity, knowing it would have an effect on all things related to it. If you change the college you went to, you have to take back knowing all the people you met along the way. We came up pretty dry. I would take back purchasing my car. We were all around happy with our lives. We love each other, where we live, our friends and our jobs. M mentioned how our family had pretty much been spared from major heath issues. I compared it to a hurricane. After a while you know you are due, in the meantime you are happy to have the life that has been given to you.
Three weeks later we found out he had cancer.My young, sweet, amazing man was diagnosed with the rare and highly aggressive Burkitt’s Lymphoma. We went to the doctor and he was immediately admitted in the hospital. We were told that the treatment process would be four rounds of in patient chemo. The first round lasted twenty-eight nights. Talk about blindsided.
Cancer is a pretty loaded word. In the first days we weren’t sure what type of lymphoma it was and if it was curable. We had a hard time sleeping at night in the noisy hospital with loud halls and beeping. All we could think about was his sickness. Before the chemo started we had to do sperm banking to preserve our ability to have kids. M has been in containment in a vacuum sealed room. All guests have to wear booties and masks because of his low immune system. I got to know my in-laws in a way that I never had. Living in the hospital, sleeping in a recliner and not going home for a month was physically draining. Watching M go through this process was the hardest thing I have ever done. M kept his spirits up and was funny to try to lighten the mood. When we found out his kind of cancer is curable, things got more hopeful. A couple weeks in he got a bad respiratory infection that was very painful. He was on oxygen and heavy pain medication while they tried to figure out the best way to treat him. For a long time M hadn’t looked like himself. His hair was gone and he was weak. The side effects of the new treatment made him not act like himself. As a wife it was very scary to see him not look or act like the man I knew and loved. I hadn’t slept in days and wondered if we would ever get back to a life that was familiar.
When he was on heavy pain meds I had to sign paperwork as his “next of kin” and that was pretty intense. We also had to decide what would happen to his sperm if he died. Although we had been together for seven years, thinking and talking in these terms was totally new for us. We are now in round three and he is responding well to treatment. He was given a seventy-five percent chance of survival, so we are confident that we will come out healthy on the other side of this. As a wife my role has changed a lot. I have learned how M pays our mortgage. When we are home he’s unable to prepare his own meals and clean his clothes. I have had to learn how to give him his medication and care for his IV access. Having a job and helping him full time is exhausting. He hasn’t worked in months so I am definitely more cognizant of my income.
We have second guessed ourselves a lot in the past couple months. I wonder if we will ever have children. Part of this makes me want to have them as soon as possible in case something happens. Part of me is so glad we don’t have them yet. Doing this with a child would be exponentially harder. I wonder sometimes if M will have to do all of this for me one day. Cancer is so common and we are so young. I worry that he will have to relive all of this over again from the other side. All of the day-to-day shit together with the stuff going on in your head puts you on edge. Sometimes we are mean to each other and it breaks my heart. He is fighting a deadly disease and I am busting my ass to help. It is hard to believe anyone could be mean to people in these circumstances yet we find a way to fight over the smallest things. With cancer comes a lot of praying, it also brings a lot of questioning. Overall this has been a test of our faith and strength.
Spending Thanksgiving in the hospital was depressing, but we are so grateful for so much this year. Modern medicine and great care from the highly specialized nurses and doctors are amazing. Our families have been by our sides the whole time, and it would be impossible without them. We have wonderful friends who have made us meals, listened to me vent and sent countless sweet cards. We hope that we will be out for Christmas, but if we aren’t we know that we will have years and years of holidays to spend with each other when this is over.
I have spent time reflecting on marriage and critical illness and have several pieces of advice.
- Be nice to your friends in the wedding process, you never know when you may really need them.
- Get insurance. M got his in July and we are so glad we have it!
- Save your money. M is a saver (thank God) and we have needed it! His goal is to say he was able to pay for cancer. Our bill for a 5 night stay in the hospital was $54,000. Yikes! I am scared to open the mail everyday.
- Go to premarital counseling. We did this and although we didn’t learn anything new about one another, the reinforcements were good for setting a solid foundation before this started.
Photo of M from Ashley’s personal collection