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For Better or Worse

Against all odds, a husband stands by his wife to fight the ultimate battle: cancer.

By JoeAnn Hart // Spring 2013
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Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

For years I used to joke with friends that if I ever got truly sick, they would have to check to see if I was alive because my husband wouldn’t. He is blind to many problems, the result of being both eternally optimistic and medically phobic. Then, 30 years into our marriage, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer that was considered highly curable but would involve brutal treatment.

My husband said the right words—“We’ll get through this together”—but I doubted the “together” part. When our kids were young he’d been able to cheerfully ignore everything from high fevers to suppurating wounds. My oldest daughter called me from medical school, pleading: “You’ve got to tell your doctors that Dad can’t cope.”

Yes, I knew. My husband’s defense system allowed him to become distracted from unpleasant experiences, but in this case I was the unpleasant experience. My friends organized a care team around me and with them I prepared to look after myself.

Then I turned out to be a cheap date when it came to chemo: Just one day hooked up to some sublethal cocktail and I became the side-effects poster girl. My instructions said I was to avoid sunbathing, but a photosensitive rash meant no sunlight whatsoever, so my husband took on the outdoor chores. The rash faded, but my mouth bloomed with open sores, and then I slowly lost control of my life. A friend was already organizing volunteers for the daily hospital ride and food list, but my husband picked up the rest, performing all the household duties. Not only was laundry processed, meals served and floors vacuumed, but he became best friends with the pharmacist. When my hair fell out, he put a reasonable spin on it: “I lost my hair 30 years ago and it didn’t bother you, did it?” True. It had troubled him far more than me when he started to go bald the first year of our marriage, and at least I could wear a wig.

My physical deterioration continued. I began to sleep all day, getting up only to be ferried to radiation. When I became weird about eating, my husband came up with plates of pale, scentless food he thought I might try. When I refused all food, he made fruit smoothies. When smoothies became revolting, he sat by my bed with ice water and a straw because the oncology nurse told him it was his job to keep me hydrated. When my white blood cells tanked, he called upon his own germ phobia to screen the health of visitors. When the red cells retreated, he picked up bath towels (a first!) so I wouldn’t trip and bruise. Most amazingly, the man with a morbid fear of all things medical was not freaked out by the chemo port installed in my chest, which was more than I could say for myself.

Eventually I became addled by opiates and he made sure I was never left alone. When I was instructed to soak nightly in Instant Ocean, a tropical fish solution from PetSmart to treat radiation burns, I’d hear him turning pages in the next room, waiting, not letting me get out of the tub by myself. When people began to flinch at the sight of me—emaciated, whey-faced and maniacally wigged—he told me how good I looked. Yes, cancer had made me susceptible to blatant lies.

When treatment finally ended, I ventured into the kitchen, which was not spotless, but wasn’t in chaos either. I opened a cabinet to find spilled cereal, and a cockroach jumped out at me. “Oh, is that what those are?” he said. What a gift to be oblivious! And to change when it really mattered.

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