I wrote this article for MD Anderson’s Cancerwise blog. You can view it here.
Before proposing to Katie, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the proposal would align with my cancer diagnosis and the uncertainty of my future.
Katie and I had been dating long-distance for two-and-a-half years while she attended graduate school in San Antonio.
Even though I was about to start a clinical trial for chronic myeloid leukemia, I was excited to ask Katie to marry me.
On January 14, 2012, amidst tears of joy, I clumsily stumbled through the reading of a letter that I had written. On the final page was the question, “Will you marry me?”
She said yes.
Promises I couldn’t make
Despite our excitement, however, I still struggled with feelings of guilt. Unlike most guys my age, I couldn’t promise Katie the illusion of a comfortable and secure life.
I couldn’t promise that we’d avoid adversity or that I’d be by her side on my 90th birthday. I could only promise that I’d do my best to hold her hand as we navigated through my often uncertain reality.
I spent the first part of my diagnosis pushing those feelings aside, never acknowledging that my situation was different from those of my peers.
Guilt is easy to ignore when cancer doesn’t directly affect the lives of those intimately connected to you. That’s why it’s easy to push people away, to not let anyone get close to you, to give in to the temptation to isolate yourself from the world.
Guilt is always best served in isolation.
Although I knew Katie was emotionally invested in our relationship, the significance of an engagement and eventual marriage meant that every result from every piece of bone marrow taken from my body moving forward would be reflected in every tear of sadness or joy that falls down her cheek. In an irrational way, I feel responsible for that.
When I sought the engagement blessing of Katie’s father, I did my best to acknowledge this awareness and assure him that I’d honor his little girl in a way that goes beyond life and all of its misfortune.
Even though I’ve overcome so much hardship at such a young age, it’s sometimes difficult not to feel inadequate. It was all I could do to assure us both that I’d never give up our happiness for an illness I couldn’t control.
Harsh realities of cancer
Soon after our engagement, I began a clinical trial at MD Anderson. I didn’t think much about how the trial could impact our new life because I’d never before experienced significant side effects from my medications.
However, I quickly learned that I’d underestimated the potential consequences of physical adversity.
The trial failed. Soon after, we met with a stem cell transplant doctor to discuss the a bone marrow transplant. This wasn’t how I envisioned everything would turn out.
Welcome to the world of cancer.
As rewarding as it was to know that I would spend the rest of my life with my best friend, I felt guilty for not knowing how long the rest of my life would be.
The thought of introducing Katie to unfamiliar emotions that no young adult should be asked to experience made me feel selfish.
In the same way that cancer corrupts the production of cells, the mind is constantly faced with deception. It’s often difficult to distinguish between false feelings and reality.
“Is this my fault?” I often asked myself.
When treatment after a cancer diagnosis goes well, we’re encouraged to live a normal life.
But when that pursuit is disrupted by a questionable blood test or scan, it’s as if the normal life you tried to live was merely the fishnet used to expose a new set of people to the harsh realities of the cancer world. It’s no wonder that some people never try to live a normal life at all.
Our new normal
Katie and I often talk to each other about our feelings and try to process what we’re each going through, and that goes a long way. But guilt is a tricky emotion that is often hard to reach.
We have to stay on top of it and constantly reassure each other that negative feelings are distortions of a deeper love and security. Throughout my seven years battling leukemia, I learned that guilt is a part of the diagnosis.
Katie and I will get married in October of this year. I’ve reached a complete molecular remission, and I know, for now, that the prognosis for a normal, healthy life is somewhat good. But it’s sometimes difficult to know that landmines exist in our household.
This is our new normal. Every day that I wake up, I realize I am the luckiest person in the world, first because I have my health, and second, because Katie chose to be with me when she didn’t have to.