Love and Cancer: In Sickness and in Health

Reading Time: 6 minutes

5…4…3…2…1… HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Once upon a time, on New Year’s Eve in 2016, a man and woman got married in Charleston, SC. They celebrated their new marriage with bubbling champagne, the liveliest dance party the South has ever seen, and the best late night pizza Charleston had to offer. They left their wedding in a pedicab, ready to take on the world together. They had a new house, a new dog, and great jobs waiting for them when they got back to Georgia. What could go wrong?

Remember that whole “in sickness and in health” thing that people say when they get married? Well, I had no idea how soon that vow would be tested. 6 weeks after I got married, I got my annual exam, a mammogram, and a biopsy, followed by a phone call from my doctor. I will never forget where I was: I had just gotten home from work, around 5:15pm, and as I walked through my house to let the dog out, my phone rang. She didn’t even say hello… She said, “Mrs. O’Connor, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but all of the tests we ran indicate that you have breast cancer.” Wait, what? I just turned 30 a week ago. Are you sure? To be completely honest, I never knew women could get breast cancer before 60. I exercise and take care of myself. I eat and drink the right things 75% of the time. Why would someone like me get stage 3 breast cancer?

I was too shocked to cry. Instead, I just paced outside and tried to figure out a way to tell my new husband. How in the world was I supposed to tell him that he married a sick woman instead of a healthy one? How was I supposed to tell him that the life we envisioned together was going to look different than we had originally hoped? As I continued to pace and think about the words to say, I heard the car door close. He was home. Crap! The tears finally made their way from the other side of my eyes out into the world as he opened the back door to greet me. I looked at him and he knew. He just knew. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t have to. He saw my tears and said, “I’m so sorry babe.” We held each other out on the patio until I was brave enough to look at him in the face again. Once the tears stopped between the two of us, I remember thinking it may have been one of the hardest moments of my life.

It was the first of many hard moments. Now it was time to tell my family. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for their tears, their need to pray, and their worrying. How was I supposed to tell them, “Hey, guess what guys… we have to do this cancer stuff all over again.” We had lost my Dad in 2015 to a glioblastoma brain tumor, the most aggressive type of brain cancer you can have. The prognosis was not good. My family and I took care of him for almost 2 years. He lasted longer than most. The fears began to set in. Would I last 2 years? Is my husband going to be left alone like my mother was? Would my mother have to deal with another death so soon?

Because my breast cancer was progressing rapidly, we had to get going on treatment immediately. Instead of using our wedding gift cards to buy plates, silverware, and bedding like most newly married couples, we were buying chemotherapy supplies, surgery pillows, and anything that had ginger in it. Educating ourselves seemed to minimize our anxiety about it all because we had a rough idea of what to expect. We had a plan which created some relief. The plan was to have chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy. I was doing what they asked me to do (for the most part), and my husband was getting his “doctorate degree” in breast cancer. Knowledge became his weapon of choice and prepping became mine. The plan was working out and by the time I had my first chemotherapy treatment, we felt like we knew everything there was to know about boobs. Then I got my genetic testing results back.

My medical team conducted genetic testing to see if I carried the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. The good news was, I didn’t. Then there was the bad news. It turns out that I have a rare genetic disorder called Li- Fraumeni Syndrome. I didn’t fully understand what this meant for me until I started googling it. What a mistake. I felt like I did moments before I had to tell my husband and family that I had cancer all over again. This genetic disorder (that I still can’t spell without spell check) is known as the “cancer gene.” Basically, the T-cells in my body are not operating like a normal person’s do to screen and filter the bad cells out. So the probability of cancer showing up in my life again and again and again is quite high. “Great…” I thought. And the hits just keep on coming. Because of this disorder, I will be scanned, tested, poked, and prodded for the rest of my life. Sounds fun, right?

With this realization, I was less concerned about myself and more concerned about my marriage and what my future will actually look like. Guilt came over every waking hour, and it even showed up in my dreams. This is certainly not the kind of wife I wanted or imagined to be. What if there is more “sickness” in the “in sickness and in health” part of the vow? What if we are consumed with medical bills? What if I died before we even got to celebrate our 10 year anniversary? What if our whole marriage is consumed with dread and anxiety over what problems we’re going to have next? What if he gets tired of looking at my “sick” body all the time? What if he’s better off with someone else that will live longer?

Neither one of us signed up to deal with cancer for the rest of our lives. So where do we go from here? When I heard the words, “You have cancer”, sirens went off in my brain. My heart became heavy and my anxiety was constantly stuck in my throat. But my husband, he didn’t hear sirens. He heard a bell. You know, like the one you hear in a boxing ring. He fought for me, with me, beside me, and through me.

There aren’t enough words that exist in the human language that can adequately express the love, respect, and joy that I feel for this husband of mine. Our friendship started in college when I was 19 years old. I spent the majority of our friendship trying to find him a girlfriend because I thought he was so amazing! Then one day, when I was 26, our eyes changed and we saw each other differently. We’ve been together ever since. 

The best way I can describe how I feel about him is to compare the feeling to Christmas morning. For me, Christmas morning has always been a source of pure joy, excitement, and wonder. I can remember almost every Christmas morning that I’ve had since I was a little girl. I remember trying so hard to stay awake on Christmas Eve so I could sneak out and see Santa lay out all of the presents. Chace is my Christmas present that I get to open all the time. Will Li-Fraumeni Syndrome take away my present?

I finally had the courage to approach Chace with my concerns. This is what he told me.

“Whitney, would you be willing to take all of your problems and put them in a bag with 1,000 other strangers? Then, reach into that bag and exchange your problems for theirs?”

I had to really think about this… I started thinking about all the good things in my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Ultimately, I said to him, “No. I wouldn’t.”

And he said, “Yeah, me neither. We’re going to get through this the same way we started, by celebrating.”

Since that day, my fears have turned into gratitude. I’ve beaten breast cancer twice now since we’ve gotten married and I STILL wouldn’t trade my circumstances with anyone else. I’ve spent more time in treatment than out of treatment ever since we said to each other, “I do.” When my guilt of being a “sick” wife sneaks in, I remind myself to not let the worries of the next scan, the next treatment, or the next “you have cancer again” phone call ruin my day.

I don’t feel like our love is unique. I don’t feel like we are “lucky” to have one another. I really don’t. Instead, I am grateful. Truly grateful. I feel like this is how it’s supposed to be. Every marriage has their trials, challenges, and burdens that they have to deal with but it’s never felt like work to me. It’s my happy place. Our burden that we carry happens to be cancer. It turns out, I was someone who was ready to take on cancer, he was someone who was ready to watch, and we are people who celebrate through it all.

We decided that we would get through our marriage the same way we started it, by celebrating. There aren’t many silver linings to cancer. So we decide everyday to create our own, big or small. We adopted the titles Boobie Queen and Boobie King to remind ourselves to eat dessert first and treat ourselves well. We even started a business called, The Boobie Queen Company to show others how to do the same. The ultimate goal is to remind the other Boobie Queens out there that they were strong before cancer and they will be strong during and after cancer just the same.

Because, there will be more sirens that go off. There will be more tragedies that will make us suffer. And when they do, this Boobie Queen and her Boobie King will find ways to celebrate through the chaos and through cancer. Again and Again.

By Whitney O’Connor