John and I met on a dating app in February of 2017. We “officially” started dating on March 19th, 2017. Not even three weeks later, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
My whole world flipped upside down. I was 20 years old, in the middle of my 3rd year of a 5-year dual-degree program towards a Master’s in Trauma Counseling (ironic, I know). I just started dating this guy who I liked, but who I was still just getting to know.
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t have a secure, established relationship to rely on with John. It’s not like older couples who’ve lived a whole life together and vowed to stick by one another in sickness and in health. At approximately 3 weeks into the relationship, John and I had just recently learned one another’s last names. There was no time to slowly get to know one another – it got real personal, real quick.
The first time John ever said “I love you” was via text as I was in the back of an ambulance being transported from my local hospital to what would now become my cancer hospital and home for the next 2 weeks as I started treatment. My cancer hospital was in north Jersey, and John was living in Philly. Just about every day, he would make the drive out to my hospital to spend time with me.
I would describe John as pretty shy at this early stage of our relationship. He wasn’t really big on words, so for him to physically show up was his way of showing he cared. He would bring me snacks and candy when my steroids/meds made me crave everything and nothing at the same time. He would stay at the hospital until 10 pm, even though he would have to drive back to Philly for class in the morning. I would cry every single time he left because I couldn’t help but think that would be the last time I’d see him. I was convinced that at some point, he was going to decide this was all too much for him. But it never happened.
Through my treatment, I lost my hair twice, I had moon face due to the steroids, and of course, I experienced the inevitable nausea/vomiting/GI problems – this isn’t something I would have wanted my new boyfriend to witness. But John saw it all. And he didn’t care. He would sit on the edge of the bathtub and rub my back while my face was in the toilet. He let me wear his hoodies even though my little baby hairs would fall out and make a mess on his clothes. He would hold my hand every time the nurses accessed my port or gave me chemo. He was there for countless chemo infusions and blood transfusions that would take up our whole day. He was there almost every time I would wake up from a spinal tap (usually bearing Chick-fil-a). He was there to drive me from his apartment in Philly to my cancer hospital in the middle of the night because I had sepsis. He was there through it all.
My last dose of chemo was in pill form on July 10th, 2019. I took that last dose as I stood in the tiny kitchen of our first apartment together. I remember feeling a sense of relief that I could start my journey to healing – both physically and emotionally – and actually focus on my new career as a mental health therapist (yes, I ended up graduating with my Master’s on time!), and my new life with John. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some fear there too. Fear of the unknown…What was our relationship going to look like now? We had gotten so used to this caregiver/patient dynamic. Now we get to be…normal…20-somethings?!
It definitely took time to adjust, but I’m happy to report that John and I have acclimated well to life as a “normal” young couple who enjoy living a boring life at home (not hospitals) with our fur baby, Archie. Though I would have hoped that the beginning of our relationship could have been WAY different, the course of reality led us to lay a pretty solid groundwork for our relationship and have an incredibly healthy, balanced, and committed relationship that I’m extremely proud of.
On October 8th, 2021, John asked me to marry him as we stood on top of Mt. Washington – the highest peak in the Northeast. Of course I said yes! Since that day, I’ve found myself reflecting on the good, the bad, and the (very) ugly parts of life that our relationship had witnessed, and the beauty that it has organically developed into. My Nonno (Italian for ‘grandpa’) recently told me that he sees John as my anchor, and me as John’s – that we are able to keep one another secure, safe, and grounded. Anyone who knows me, knows I ADORE my Nonno, so for him to make this observation meant a lot to me. It means that someone can see what I feel.
I share my story not only because I appreciate the love John and I share, but because I think it’s important to acknowledge the additional challenges young adults face when diagnosed with cancer. There are so many unknowns about our lives, relationships, education, careers, etc. Having such a committed and helpful partner by my side through all of it was the security and safety I didn’t know I needed.
I initially titled this story as “Love with ALL” for the basic reason that I found love in John while being treated for ALL. But as I look at the title now with fresh eyes, I see it as a statement of “Love with all” – John has shown me that he loves me with all he has, and I love him with all I have.
By Jenn Rowley