A Cancer Patient’s Guide To Wedding Planning

Planning under the sword of Damocles

My boyfriend proposed to me on a romantic walk along the California coastline. As he asked me to be his bride, the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing through his short, chestnut hair. But it wasn’t blowing through mine. I was bald as Lex Luther, having just completed six months of intensive chemotherapy for lymphoma. We were twenty-seven years old, and after dating for eight years, George and I decided to finally wed. Unfortunately, this would mean planning a wedding during a time in which we could barely plan ahead more than one week at a time. A few months after our engagement, I underwent an additional course of chemotherapy and a grueling bone marrow stem cell transplant. Three months later, we received the good news that I was cancer free. I had reached remission, but my health and prognosis were still very precarious, and I would need to have scans every three months. Forget planning a wedding in a year or even six months: if we wanted to plan a party, we would have to do it quickly, all while waiting under the sword of Damocles.

Many brides complain about the stresses of planning a wedding. Whether it’s the cost, the societal expectations, or the dizziness that ensues after thinking about the DIY projects, there can be a lot to deal with. This stress is supported—if not fully created—by the wedding industrial complex, which works to make sure that all brides and grooms feel compelled to spend more, stress more, and obsess more about this one day of their lives. As a recently freed cancer patient, I thought that I would be immune to these stresses and pressures. Stress was worrying that my cancer was growing, wondering if I would live to be thirty-five, and fearing the pain that my disease and potential death might bring to my loved ones. Stress was not picking out flowers, making seating charts, or choosing bridesmaid dresses. But as I began to read wedding magazines and flip through blogs, I began to feel increasingly isolated and, well, stressed. As a young adult with cancer, I was used to feeling like a black sheep, but having to plan a wedding introduced a whole new army of instances in which I felt self-conscious and even inadequate.

For starters, most brides aren’t bald. I was thrilled when my hair began to grow back, and I immediately googled “brides with short hair” in order to get inspiration for my nascent locks. Photos of women with hair at their shoulders popped up, as did articles instructing nervous brides to start planning their hair two years in advance of their weddings just so that it could be the perfect length. I nervously fingered my own hair, which stood proudly at about a half of an inch, and I tried to take comfort in thinking that I would at least save money on a stylist.

In addition to having hair, most brides also seemed to have more time and flexibility in planning their wedding. We didn’t know how long my remission would last, so we decided to get married within the window of time that we had. This forced us to ignore the majority of planning tips, which encouraged nervous brides to take their time and “choose the right moment.” Cancer had made us accustomed to not being picky about timing, but this concept seemed to be anathema to many people in the wedding industry. From buying a dress to securing a caterer, we quickly learned that six weeks was not considered much in terms of lead time. Finding a dress was a particularly peculiar task for me, given that I was getting used to my newly cancer-free (and much frailer) body. One saleslady asked me what size I was, and I told her that I wasn’t sure because I had recently lost a lot of weight. Certain that this was intentional, she flashed me a triumphant smile and declared, “Congratulations!” I politely explained that my weight loss was due to illness, and then we endured an awkward moment where we each silently pondered the absurdity of society’s beauty ideals.

One evening, after surfing through some blogs and looking at happy brides with big hairdos and insouciant expressions, I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I had never been a perfectionist, but like most girls, I had thought about what my wedding day might look like. I had wondered whether I would wear my big curly hair up or down, and what kind of dress I might wear. I had never thought that I might be sporting a buzz cut and a few chest scars from surgeries and catheters. Since my diagnosis, I had long given up on the control over how my body looked. There were times during my treatment when I barely recognized myself, and I felt lucky to be getting married with some hair, strength, and health. Intellectually I understood that my wedding day was just like any other day, and that it was a fantasy for anyone, let alone a cancer patient, to think that I would be at the apogee of my beauty. But the industry had gotten to me. I let it make me feel irresponsible for trying to plan a wedding in eight weeks—a respectable amount of time to plan any other type of party. I let it make me feel imbalanced for wearing a big dress without the big hair. And, worst of all, I let it make me feel somehow like I didn’t belong in the pantheon of brides.

Fortunately, my fiancé talked me out of this moment of self-deprecation, and I quickly felt foolish for having ever felt insufficient. I had lost sight of what our wedding was truly about: marrying the love of my life and celebrating with our loved ones. My fiancé and I had never wanted a traditional wedding, and we ultimately got married in a modern studio space surrounded by ninety of our closest family and friends. Even with scars and short hair, I never felt prettier or happier. We had barbecue, plenty of booze, and minimal but beautiful decorations. Our wedding was perfect, even if the circumstances surrounding it were less than ideal.

I am not saying that couples shouldn’t get stressed about planning a wedding. It is an expensive and logistically complicated undertaking, and it is often the first (and only) large party that you will throw. But you should never feel inferior, whether it’s because you are in a wheelchair, can’t afford a photobooth, or simply don’t give a damn about the centerpieces. When you say “yes” to the proposal, remember to say “no” to the wedding industry that will soon be proposing many of its own questions.

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  • Episkey

    Absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing.

  • Robyne

    Wow nice this is a Assume walk for you. Your Boy Friend proposed you and changed your life.

  • Claire

    Love this post! Such smart (and well written) advice. As someone who planned a wedding in 5 weeks, I remember having to throw out almost all wedding planning tips since the wedding world seems to assume everyone starts planning at least two years in advance. I sometimes felt inadequate, like our quickly planned wedding was not enough to be a “real wedding”. Thank you for this reminder!
    And what a beautiful photograph of joy! Congratulations on your remission and your wedding!

    • Kate V

      I second!

  • KC

    Pushing your wedding out two years so that you can plan your hair ahead of time just seems completely nuts to me (unless hair is *really* important to you, I guess?). But, also, I would have gone bonkers had I been engaged 2 years, I think (we did 6 months-ish, and having everyone ask about wedding colors et al for 6 solid months was enough, thankyouverymuch).

    I’m really glad you were able to sort things into their categories (care but can’t have, works out fine anyway; don’t care but WIC does, bah; care and can do, yay) and didn’t get permanently washed away by the deluge of WIC proposals or expectations.

    (also: yay remission! congratulations! yay marriage! congratulations!)

    • Chiara M

      I gave myself 3.5 months (2 weeks out!), and let me tell you, after signing up for theknot.com and seeing that I had over 100 overdue items, when I was still trying to figure everything out, I got mad, and then I told theknot to shut up and stop sending me emails.

      I hear you on the two years thing. I’ve had people tell me I’ve put extra stress on myself for doing it in such a short time frame, but I tell them, pooey, I wouldn’t want this worry for two whole years, and that’s how these things get to be so expensive. People keep suggesting things, and then you keep thinking they’re important (last week it was altar decorations, the week before, boutonnieres), when I decided when I started they weren’t important to me.

      Pauline: Go you for rocking the hair, and adding inspiration to the interwebs for other brides with actual short hair. Go you for telling the WIC to shove it. Go you for putting together a meaningful celebration in weeks instead of years. Go you for beating lymphoma.

  • MisterEHolmes

    Lovely post. Congratulations on your marriage and remission! Also, I love the phrase “pantheon of brides!”

  • Class of 1980

    “Cancer had made us accustomed to not being picky about timing …”

    Even without cancer, most of us are delusional … we think we have all the time in the world to live. Cancer forces you to drop that particular delusion.

    You just look like a beautiful bride to me.

  • Outside Bride

    This is such a fantastic post. The crucible of planning a weddings in difficult situations makes the absurdity of our societal expectations all the more clear. I think sometimes when someone is facing serious life events, we like to think they are immune to all the silly pressures, but the WIC gets to almost all of us at some point or another, no matter how smart or practical or informed we are. Thank you for expressing that. It also just made me angry, that you felt those pressures when you were already dealing with so much. It made me want to just pick you up and protect you…except you obviously don’t need anyone fighting your battles! Frail body or not, you appear to have rocked your wedding, and the joy in that photo is everything I want my wedding to be. Beautiful.

  • swarmofbees

    Congratulations on remission! It sounds like you had a wonderful day and are on your way to many years of a wonderful marriage.

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  • Markell Lewis Miller

    So proud of my sister for sharing this story. What a beautifully written piece. The wedding was wonderful, one of my happiest days. Thanks Pauline for sharing your experience.

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Markell!

  • Laura

    Thank you for sharing your story and perspective. Also, I love your hair and want to see more pictures. <3

  • HannahESmith

    Thank you for this!

  • jessdang

    Beautiful post Pauline!!! A must-read for every crazy-ass bride out there to put things into perspective, :). xoxo, Jess

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Jess!!

  • Stella

    LOVE this post! Really, I think it really draws out how the WIC’s one-size fits all message just doesn’t make any sense!

  • Ashley

    Pauline, Thank you for your post. I too am a twenty-seven year old facing cancer. I was diagnosed with Leukemia last year and while I’m very lucky to have a real shot at a cure, I’ve been facing long and grueling treatment schedules. As my husband and I had only been married for one month when I got my diagnosis, weddings and cancer have always gone together in my mind. When I remember our wedding it goes along with the time in my life when we began to face my cancer. All of this is to say that, while I did not deal with having to navigate the WIC with my bald head, I have a small window into what you’re facing. Thank you for writing your brave post and sharing your perspective. It’s nice to remember we aren’t alone in this world of twenty-somethings facing cancer and still wanting to enjoy our lives with weddings and newlywed experiences and whatever those things may bring – even if under “different” time schedules, diets, or while in residence at the local cancer center. All things that, for me at least, have become the new normal. Just wanted to write and say that I am with you. FIST BUMP.

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Ashley! I am so glad that this post spoke to you, and I hope that it provided you with a small sense of community. Hang in there with all of your treatment, and remember to just take one day at a time. And right back at you with the fist bump!

  • Nicola

    What a wonderful post. A longtime reader and lurker, I’m coming out of hiding to say … you definitely belong in the pantheon of brides. Congratulations to you both – real ones!

  • valerie j

    pauline– you are the bomb! this is a well-written, honest, and thoughtful inspiration to women all around!

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Val!! Really appreciate your sweet comment!

  • Megan M

    Love this! What a great picture to accompany such well written thoughts xxx

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Megan!!