My husband and I celebrated 5 years of marriage during the same week that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had been with each other for nearly a decade at that point, and our lives together had in no way been smooth sailing.
We first met about a year after college, after we both moved from California to New York in pursuit of other relationships. After some time, those relationships fizzled out, and the two of us found ourselves at a party together.
We were complete strangers, despite the fact that our lives took very similar paths. We marveled at the ease in which conversation flowed between us.
I was captivated by the lively former gymnast who introduced himself and then told me that he was a custom wood furniture maker like Aidan from “Sex and the City” — a timely reference in 2008 — or Jesus.
Then, he informed me that he could do a backflip, which he proceeded to do in the middle of the apartment building hallway, followed by a back handspring and another backflip. I was instantly smitten.
Building a foundation
After that evening, we were inseparable. Less than a year into our relationship, within the same week, we were both laid off — collateral damage from the 2008 recession. We wanted to stay in New York, though, so while he scrambled to apply to grad school, I applied to law school.
We were both accepted into programs that allowed us to continue to live together, yet life during those years wasn’t easy. Both of our academic programs were incredibly challenging. Plus, they ran on opposite schedules, so we rarely saw each other except for weekends, which were already consumed with our studies.
We each experienced several close personal losses and comforted each other through the grief brought upon by each. Both of us became ill and required surgery during that time as well. We learned very quickly the important and varied roles of partner-caretakers.
After my husband graduated with his master’s degree, he proposed to me, as a promise that we’d always be there for each other no matter what.
Navigating a metastatic diagnosis
Fast-forward 5 years to 2017. We had a 2-year-old son and had just bought a house in the New York suburbs.
We had weathered 2 years of life as a family of three, living in a 700-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. Although we got through it, those years were stressful. As we settled into our new house, we began trying to have a second baby.
Days after we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary and our son’s second birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon after, we learned that my disease was metastatic.
The first year of my diagnosis was isolating and difficult for both of us.
My husband’s perspective
I spoke with my husband, Christian, about the difficulties we’ve faced, especially during the first year as a family dealing with metastatic breast cancer.
“We needed to find space to grieve and process separately,” he said. “We struggled to lean on each other during those months because we were both so fragile.
“After the first year, once Emily experienced progression off of her first drug, we realized how scared we really were and how important it was to find a new strength in our relationship.”
After I underwent a total hysterectomy, we began to explore new ways of being intimate. We reconnected in ways that were incredibly satisfying for both of us.
“This experience brought us closer than we had ever been, but I would give that closeness up in a heartbeat if it meant that Emily was no longer sick,” he said.
We’ve also had to discuss some difficult topics, such as my end of life wishes, raising our son in the future, and how I’d like to be remembered. “I don’t like to think about it, but it helps that she is willing to bring up those topics,” Christian added.
“Emily has always had a wild sense of humor, and one evening, she turned to me and said, ‘It’s OK if you remarry, but I don’t want you to buy your next wife a diamond that’s bigger than mine.’
“We both had a good laugh about that, because it felt so silly, and a little petty, but also it made it easier to talk about those sorts of things.”
Moving forward together
Every marriage has its challenges, its pitfalls, and its own set of difficulties. Yet even a marriage that’s navigating life with a terminal disease has room for growth, for love, and for the cultivation of a new level of friendship.
My illness is one of the biggest challenges that my husband and I are facing in our lives. But we’re also finding new ways of connecting and enjoying the time we have together.
Emily Garnett is an elder law attorney, mother, wife, and cat lady who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2017. Because she believes in the power of one’s voice, she blogs about her diagnosis and treatment at Beyond the Pink Ribbon.
She also hosts the podcast “The Intersection of Cancer and Life.”
She writes for Advancedbreastcancer.net and Young Survival Coalition. She’s been published by Wildfire Magazine, Women’s Media Center, and the Coffee + Crumbs collaborative blog.