On July 17th, 2019 I sat with Dr. Michael Roth in the MD Anderson Cancer Center AYA Clinic. We discussed many things that day: fertility, genes, long term side effects, and my psycho-social concerns. I told Dr. Roth a statement that I often repeated over the last two years since my cancer diagnosis.
“Dating has been a disaster.”
I was almost repulsed by Dr. Roth’s confident and hopeful replies. He seemed so sure that there would come a day that I never utter those words again. After all, just one month earlier at the MDACC Young Adult Cancer Conference (that I met Nick at!), I was in a breakout session about dating that resulted in groans from all the single people, myself included. The psychologist said several things that just seemed too hard. Trust again! Dating is hard for everyone! Love is worth the battle! I remember scoffing and that this “professional” had no idea what I had gone through.
On May 2nd, 2017, one week before my total thyroidectomy and the official start of my cancer treatment, I laid on my kitchen floor crying. I remember every single detail. How hard and cold the floor felt, the tears that pooled near my face, and the biggest thing: The sound of my now ex-boyfriend’s boots walking out the back door and his car starting. Getting a cancer diagnosis not only marked the end of life as I knew it, but also a 6 year relationship.
With the course of my life now taking a drastic turn in the matter of a few weeks, like who I was going to marry, family plans, and processing that I was indeed a cancer patient (no matter how deep in denial I was), I turned to the only true anchor I know: God. I found great comfort in the story of Ruth from the Bible. From losing her first husband, moving to a different location, and choosing following a different culture than her own, Ruth’s journey is a wonderful example that our life can still turn out beautiful, even if the plans change.
With the help of my faith, I tried to embrace my “new life” as much as possible, but my failed relationship was a still a confusing and painfully deep wound. And the scab kept getting picked at with each attempted love connection. After plenty of negative feedback about my cancer, I was scared if I entered the world of online dating that I would be flooded with profiles of dudes saying “Must have thyroid and all central neck lymph nodes.”. I internalized the false message that having cancer not only made me unattractive, but undateable as well. I stopped talking about having cancer and tried to keep it a secret. My hope was to keep it a secret long enough until someone liked me, then I would share. This too was a doomed strategy.
Something changed though. Tears hit my floor again, but for a different reason this time. I surrendered. With “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner playing in my earbuds, I raised my white flag. I told God that I was ready to forgive and let the hurt of that relationship go. I acknowledged that it wasn’t love, and essentially lying by omission to myself and others about having cancer wasn’t love either. And that I was ready to embrace with my whole heart this time, not just part of it. I was finally ready to be a true “Ruth”. And that meant opening up about cancer.
I genuinely felt led to advocacy, although it was absolutely terrifying. It was a big leap going from feeling shameful to announcing to the world “Yeah, I had cancer. And I’m here to tell you all about it!”. I tried to view it as taking the power back from those who were ignorant or hurtful, and also helping others feel comfortable to share their own stories.
On a particular night where I felt discouraged and regretting my decision to go public, I stumbled upon a TEDx talk by a fellow AYA cancer survivor named Dave Fuehrer. Dave was brutally honest about his struggles, many of which we shared. Not only did cancer also shatter his self esteem, but he experienced the ending of a relationship due to his diagnosis also. The familiar tears returned, and this time they were so heavy I couldn’t see out of my eyes. All I heard was Dave’s voice validating my feelings and experience. I knew right then that I had to be a “Dave” for someone else, even if it was just one person.
Dave is the CEO of a company called GRYT Health, and on October, 5th 2019, GRYT hosted the first ever Global Virtual Cancer Conference. It was completely free and all online, so it removed the barriers of cost and transportation. I was beyond humbled and honored to not only be part of this event, but to be doing it with someone who inspired me so much. It was the hope that our session “So, You’ve Got The Good Cancer?” with Ellis Emerson and Hailey Johnston was just as validating as Dave’s TEDx talk for people with so-called “good” or “easy” cancers. I left GVCC 19 feeling on top of the world and incredibly proud of what we accomplished.
Later that month I got a private message on the GRYT app from GRYT’s Partnership Manager Thomas Hessney. Almost every employee at GRYT is a cancer survivor or caregiver, and Tommy is a caregiver for his mother with Melanoma. It said “You didn’t tell me you liked Andrew McMahon!!!”. Keep in mind, I only had one brief email exchange with Tommy for GVCC up until this point. I may have liked his tweets now and then, but we weren’t close enough to be discussing musical tastes. I realized he figured it out as I wore my Andrew McMahon asterisk pin (given to me by my dear friend, Brenna Murphy.) on my shirt for a promotional video for GVCC and for my session. I’ve loved Andrew’s music since I was an early teen, and he was the first AYA cancer survivor I ever heard of. I clapped back at Tommy, “You didn’t tell me you liked Andrew McMahon, soooooooo???”. He rightfully said “touche” and proceeded to talk about his first Jack’s Mannequin concert. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure this is the cancer equivalent of DM sliding. I also noticed Tommy was responding to me a lot more on the GRYT general discussion chat room.
A project came up and I needed to talk with someone at GRYT about it. I emailed Dave and asked if Tommy could help me because he seemed like the right person for the job. Dave said “Sure, Tommy can help you with whatever you need!”. I told Tommy that I am a demanding person as I require he have a snack and beverage during our meeting since I want him to be energized and hydrated. Being the professional he is, he complied and showed me that he acquired the goods on our first Zoom meeting. Being the person I am, of course I was going to turn this into a stand up special. Eventually, Tommy and I both laughed so hard we cried. And, well…we didn’t stop talking.
I started getting good morning texts in my second language, Gaelige (Irish), from him. We learned our birthdays are close together. We are both big fans of the song “Africa” by Toto and like to text the lyrics. We have a similar humor and it made our daily (and nightly) conversations fun. Even better, Tommy knew I had cancer. I didn’t need to hide or disclose it. He knew all of it, and it didn’t change how he viewed me. And it was then I realized I wasn’t scared of falling in love anymore.
Well, that was until we had our first FaceTime. It bombed. Hard. Tommy was very nervous, but kept denying that he was in an effort to seem cool. I don’t even want to go into the greatest hits from that conversation, but I realized the next day that nerves were probably a good thing and he was still the Tommy I was really enjoying talking to. He eventually told me he loved me, and he said it with his whole heart and fully confident. I was scared I would never hear those words again, but not only did I hear that, I heard how much he respected the journey it took for me to get to him. Which, yes, included cancer.
Next thing I know, about a month later, I am flying to Rochester, NY. I hug my mom goodbye at the airport in Tyler, TX and reflect on how being a “Ruth” led me to this moment. After 3 airplanes and delays, I arrived in Rochester at 11 pm. I waited anxiously for Tommy to arrive in the airport lobby, since I was there before he parked. The doors finally opened and I saw him walking towards me. I screamed and started running as fast as socially acceptable in an airport. When we made contact there was a loud thud, but I remember his arms wrapped around me. And out of his pocket he pulled out a container of Tums. Sometimes my calcium drops after my thyroidectomy, and Tums is the quick fix. By doing this, I knew Tommy fully accepted me, and I knew I made the right decision by coming.
However, one day we sat in a Wegmans grocery store parking lot. I was crying very hard and feeling scared. I stated every reason why we wouldn’t work. Our cultures are very different, we live in different places, my cancer might be back and I don’t want to go through treatment again, were just a few of them. I remember Tommy sitting next to me, reflective and calm. He took a breath in and explained that he loved me and who I was. He always dreamed of being with someone like me and that is all that mattered. Not where I came from, what I’ve gone through, or what I will go through. That was all the reassurance I needed. Later that night, with Spotify on shuffle, we drove through downtown Rochester. Rochester’s skyline has so many beautiful colors at night, and I noticed that when I flew in. It just so happened that Synesthesia by Andrew McMahon came on. With the classic line “And I see colors when I hear your voice.” it was just too perfect.
I remember waking up the next day washing my face in the bathroom. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I saw the spark in my eyes again. I realized I was finally accepting myself after my diagnosis. I was always beautiful and whole, Tommy just made me see it again. His acceptance made me accept myself, and I started to really love who I saw staring back at me again.
I arrived back in Texas and after Thanksgiving, I was back in Houston for my scans and appointments with my care team. I reminded Tommy that I didn’t want to go back on treatment again several times, and one day he sent me a song by an artist called Half an Orange. It was called “I Need U To Stay” and I think it perfectly summed up his feelings that he wanted me to do whatever it took to be with him and have a future together. I got the message and I was prepared for whatever news I received. What I had with Tommy was worth it.
What I didn’t know is later that December I would ask the same thing of Tommy. He had been struggling with a lot of emotional pain in secret, and the reality of care giving combined with other stresses wore him down. I told him that I needed him to stay, and that I too needed him to do whatever it took to be with me and have a future together. Thankfully, he listened and entered into an outpatient mental health treatment program for 2 weeks. Tommy would have told you that GVCC or graduating college with 2 degrees was his greatest accomplishment, but I’m convinced that this is. I am so proud of Tommy and I am thankful we both had the support of GRYT.
I still can’t believe all the details here. The thing I kept running away from actually led me to Tommy. Dave, who helped me believe in love again after cancer, actually hired Tommy and helped shaped him into the compassionate man he is within the cancer community. Andrew McMahon, founder of the Dear Jack Foundation and AYA cancer survivor brought us together.
Life is not a Hallmark movie where you find love and all is well. The same thing is true for cancer. As I write this, I don’t know what the future holds. Just like you don’t with your next scan, college exam, or job interview. But I want you to know that cancer does not disqualify you from love of any kind. And you know what? Most of all I hope you fall in love with yourself again. Because we need you to stay.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.
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Thank you so much for sharing your story as it helps others realize they are not alone and can overcome. I experienced similar emotions as you did during my cancer diagnosis and treatment. At first, I found it very tough to talk about it. I wouldn’t have fared as well without the love and support from my wife. I’m forever grateful and blessed to have her in my life. I now realize that sharing our stories is extremely therapeutic and emotional healing. Your story will help many people. Stay well.
Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed your story 🙂