As we round out our first year of marriage and our first year of battling cancer, I recently asked my husband Brad how he would describe this past year. “Disrupted.” Before cancer, we had plans: big, extravagant, travel-the-world kind of plans. After two years of a long-distance relationship, we were finally going to live in the same city. We were going to get settled in our brand-new home. We were going to make new Florida friends. We were excited about the opportunities we had in our careers. We were going to capitalize on the “newlywed phase” to the fullest extent! Then, we learned that cancer doesn’t care if you’re newly married with plans in place; it can rock your world in an instant.
Five days – that’s how long we had been married when we heard the most unexpected, gut-wrenching words: “it’s cancer.” Just five days before, Brad was in a black tux. I was in the most beautiful wedding gown. We were surrounded by our biggest support system and celebrating the vows we had just made to each other – to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
The life we had been dreaming of and planning together came to an abrupt, scary halt. I remember the day everything began to change so vividly. Our dear friends were actually Brad’s doctors. I remember the agony on their faces when they entered the room. She had to tell me to sit down. I told her I was fine to stand. Again, she encouraged me to sit down, knowing that the words she was about to share were the furthest thing from my mind – something that I would need to sit for. She was right. She told us that his swollen arm that had initially been due to a blood clot was actually the result of a grapefruit-sized mediastinal mass in his chest. By Friday, we knew it was cancer, specifically T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, which we then learned was a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
We had been married just over a week and found ourselves meeting with an oncologist to map out what came next. In that first week, we were forced to talk about fertility risks, wills, advanced directives, potential outcomes, secondary cancers, and a laundry list of risks associated with the upcoming treatment. Driving home from the first official visit, I remember crying. At this point, I think I had been crying for nearly two weeks straight, and my eyes were perpetually red and puffy. But, driving back from this visit, Brad looked at me, grabbed my hand, and said, “When we park this car at home, we’re done crying.” He didn’t say it to be mean. He said it firmly, with strength. He told me that, unfortunately, our crying wouldn’t make the diagnosis magically disappear. I’d be lying if I said neither of us has cried since that day, but I will say that since that day, we haven’t cried because of the hand we had been dealt. Our tears have been out of exhaustion, thankfulness, sometimes fear of the unknown, but more importantly, from joy and laughter.
You see, no one asks for cancer. No one would say “hey cancer, pick me.” But everyone has a choice. This isn’t a new message, not one you haven’t heard before, but it’s one we have been able to intentionally live out over the last year. We had a choice to continue to cry, feel sorry for our situation, be angry for being robbed of our first year of marriage because of cancer, but we consciously chose, in that car ride, that we wouldn’t let that be the case. Again, this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt angry, lonely, frustrated, sad, jealous, or a whole host of other emotions because we most definitely have along this journey. Unfortunately, it’s just part of it, but I will say we have chosen to be there for each other and guide each other back to our faith when those feelings raise their ugly head.
Within this year, we have gone through chemotherapy, radiation, and ultimately, a stem cell transplant – more than many couples go through in a lifetime. Although Brad is technically the one carrying the cancer, I have caught myself referring to it as “our” doctor’s appointment, “we” have to go to radiation or some collective form of “us.” In the beginning, I would correct myself, but then Brad began doing the same thing – referring to it as “our” thing because in reality, it is.
Finding support has made all the difference. Throughout this past year, Brad and I committed to never search the internet for his diagnosis. The internet can be a scary place, and we didn’t want to know what statistics would be spit at us; that is until we were told a stem cell transplant was on the horizon. That was when I found The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). As I took a deep dive into the LLS website, I learned that it is a valuable resource for both patients and caregivers. LLS had information not only about Brad's diagnosis but also about the stem cell transplant roadmap. The more I read, the more I trusted LLS was a credible source. I didn't feel that it was giving me alarming statistics, but instead, useful information. I have continued to connect with LLS, not only for the educational resources it provides but also for identifying opportunities to support their continued fight against this nasty disease.
We wouldn't wish this experience on anybody, but that doesn't stop us from wanting to use it for good. That’s why we’ve decided to create a wallet with my family’s company that will be named after Brad – The Bradford. Proceeds from The Bradford – which will be available on KellyTooke.com in time for holiday shopping and in the LLS Holiday Gift Guide – will be donated to LLS to help create a world without blood cancer.
If there is one thing we have learned over this last year, it is that cancer is a “we” thing. Every decision, discussion, appointment, procedure, hospital stay, disruption, is something we have done together. For better or worse, we have done this together, and we will forever be stronger as one – in sickness and in health.