The Convalescent's Wife
Life has a habit of hitting you in the face when you least expect it. But having been through a period of my life when things were relatively stable, I had a feeling that something explosive would happen sooner or later. And so, on February 2019, my lovely boyfriend of over two years was diagnosed with stage 2 papillary thyroid cancer. It’s a strange feeling to have your world suddenly change, seemingly overnight, from one where you set out to have the best year of your life with your partner to one where everything suddenly fell (without warning) upside down. That initial feeling of shock is indescribable, yet it felt like no other feeling that I’ve ever experienced. When Jason first told me he felt a lump in his throat, I reacted with disbelief and dismissed his concerns as nothing serious. Everyone has a lump here and there, don’t they? But after he went to the doctors again and did a biopsy, the dreaded news fell upon us that it was indeed the dreaded “C” word- Cancer. I didn’t know how to react. Was I supposed to cry? Was I supposed to feel lucky that it wasn’t me who got cancer? Or was I supposed to find a solution to his sickness right here and then? I didn’t know how to feel. All I thought about was how tragic the whole incident was, and how Jason’s life would change forever. My life (and new life as a “cancer girlfriend”- a term I coined to describe being the girlfriend of someone with cancer) changed too, in many ways, both big and small. First, the stress that I have experienced is indescribable. Everything happened so quickly with Jason’s diagnosis and the next thing I knew, he packed his bags and left Oxford to have treatment in Beijing. I was left in a state of shock that was empty, dark and almost hollow, like a giant black hole had suddenly appeared out of thin air sucking the happiness out of me. The stress of packing my boyfriend’s clothing for storage, the hectic phone calls, the urgent messages, the honest emails that I have had to send... they are all a blur in my mind. I didn’t want to burden Jason with all of the stress that I was experiencing at the moment, but cancer can be just as stressful for loved ones as it is for the patient. Second, I experienced huge bouts of fear and anxiety. Throughout the last few months, everything has been uncertain. When will Jason be cured? Will he get his voice back? When is the first surgery? What happens next? There is no answer and the more questions I ask, the fewer answers that I get. Cancer itself is like a bomb that can erupt at any time, anywhere in one’s body. It is an uncertain and unpredictable illness and no one, not even the doctors, seemed to have any defined answers for me. As an inquisitive and curious perfectionist, I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions. I like having certainty in my life, and I like knowing what to do next. In fact, I’m a bit obsessed with having a bit of certainty in my life. However, as a cancer girlfriend, you get no (or few) answers back. Third, I experienced a lot of guilt. As Jason and I have been doing long distance since the first month we met, I can’t help but feel like cancer has affected our relationship and communication in many ways. Long-distance is already excruciatingly hard. It requires a lot of emotional giving without physical intimacy. Much of it is waiting- waiting to see each other, waiting for FaceTime calls, waiting for Jason to wake up. Not much of it is living in the moment. Cancer simply makes this process much more difficult and tumultuous. Power relations change, and libidos and emotional feelings are affected. Physically, the other person changes. Mentally, a lot of complicated feelings arise. To give an example, I was suddenly thrown into the role of a carer and Jason became a “patient” who needs help. I feel much more powerful than he is as I am healthy and able to speak. On the other hand, Jason lost his voice after surgery and has to stay home all year. While I am meeting new friends in the UK, he is confined to his house without much support and friends. I am not used to this sudden shift in power, and sometimes selfish thoughts come to me. Should I continue living my life in the UK while Jason is in the hospital sick? Should I go out and party with my friends knowing that Jason might never do so again? Do I stop meeting new friends and people? Am I even allowed to be happy and healthy when Jason is so sick? As much as I’d like to fly back to see Jason every week, it is physically impossible and practically unrealistic to do so. It’s that dilemma that always hits me when I am out with friends, and I am constantly plagued by a sense of guilt, gnawing away at my heart at every step I take, every moment I spend awake. As a “cancer girlfriend”, it is difficult to juggle multiple hats, some of which I have no choice but to wear. I’m still struggling to recalibrate everything that’s going on and balance out my life. Fourth, I have experienced a lot of sorrow. As a pessimist, this is no new emotion for me but there is no feeling comparable to seeing someone you love get sick. When I first met Jason, he was the healthiest and strongest man that I’ve ever seen. This was one of the reasons why I was drawn to him so quickly. He’s always been a symbol of positivity and strength, and I admired him deeply for that. Seeing the man that I love become sick, weak and bed-ridden hurts me like a knife wound in my heart. When I was in Beijing caring for him after his surgery, I experienced moments where I felt so sad that I had tears in my eyes. Seeing him bleeding, with tubes down his neck and a giant, gaping wound is not an easy sight to digest. It taught me that life is fragile and that even the strongest falls in times of trouble. At times, it felt like me who got cancer. I turn 26 years old this year and the sorrow that I’ve experienced this year is deeper and more profound than any other. Fifth, the cancer girlfriend goes through waves of denial. There is no cancer- Jason is completely fine. Maybe his cancer is misdiagnosed- maybe it is just a harmless lump! Maybe everything will become alright after his first surgery, and we can go back to normal. Maybe if I ignore the problem it will go away. Maybe if I go out more and meet new people, I can pretend that I don’t have any problems in my life. I’ve never been one to ignore problems and I’m a confrontational person. But the pain of seeing Jason get cancer can get too much at times, and it is easier to ignore it than confront it. Even if I confront it, there is nothing I can do to make it go away. Cancer is a disease without a fixed, definite cure, and I am ashamed to admit that I bury my head in the sand at times. Who wouldn’t? Sometimes, the cancer girlfriend just wants to pretend that she’s just a regular, normal “girlfriend”. But reality always - always - comes back. Sixth, I’ve learned to accept life the way it is. If life throws Jason and I cards that point towards cancer, so be it. When I was younger, I was a firm believer that you are the engineer of your own fate. I believed hard work and dedication can help you achieve anything. Cancer taught me that I was wrong. There are some things that I cannot change, and nothing I do can solve the problem. In some ways, being a cancer girlfriend made me more accepting of life and the fact that I too, can one day get cancer. I’ve come to expect it, almost, in my own twisted sense of realism. Jason must deal with it his whole life, and I encourage him to make the best of his situation. In some ways, cancer can be a blessing in disguise, but it is also a curse that forces me to confront my biggest insecurity and fear- death. I’ve recently started taking yoga classes and it has taught me that there are things in life that should just be accepted. Go with the flow, and the flow will bring things to you. What these things may be, I do not know. But being a cancer girlfriend has definitely made me grow personally and spiritually, and made me less selfish and cynical. To wrap up, I want to end on a note of positivity. Cancer is a part of many people’s lives. In my selfish bubble, I didn’t think it would happen to Jason or myself. I never thought about it before, but now that it has hit us early, we will become more prepared for the future. All I wish for is that we live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life. And to Jason, let’s live a tumultuous twenties and emerge a better, healthier and stronger person.