Love in Spite of Us

Cancer taught a couple how to save their dying relationship.

Posted Aug 20, 2019

Jim canceled the order for a new washer and dryer. I contacted a friend 1,800 miles away who was looking for a roommate.

I called a colleague who is a marriage and family therapist and asked her if she could recommend a couples’ counselor in our area. Her referral was an Emotionally-Focused Therapist and we thought he was skilled, caring, and competent—all the things that couples need so they can have a breakthrough and save their relationship. And we might have had one if my gynecologist had not called and told me I had cancer.

Seemed like, for one reason or another, Jim and I might not make it to our 20th anniversary.

I considered this threat a nasty inconvenience and visualized a tick that had dug itself into my uterus. Jim’s response to the news was a perfect match for mine: “Let’s handle this.” Despite our sour kisses that ended each day, we were a good team, made of the same stuff that drove us to win, no matter what we did.

My gynecologist had lost his wife to cancer and seemed determined never to lose another woman to it. He was resolute in his referral to the University of Colorado Anschutz Cancer Pavilion. I was assigned a physician, made an appointment, and then called back to cancel it.

“Why?” the scheduler asked me.

“I want Dr. Guntupalli instead.” When I had gone online, I saw something in the face of this doctor—not to mention his stunning resumé—that convinced me it would be Saketh Guntupalli and no one else who would fix my problem.

He removed the tumor, put me on a short course of chemotherapy, and ordered six sessions of radiation. His program had a high likelihood of leading to a cure. End of story. Not really.

Jim and I stayed in a hotel across the street the night before my minimally invasive, robotically assisted hysterectomy. I wasn’t allowed to eat and told him to go find something fried and wash it down with alcohol.

In my whole life, I had only once felt determination like what I felt that night before the surgery. It was in my freshman year of high school and the guy I had a crush on had just earned number 1 in our class ranking. I told him I would beat him—that’s because my 13-year-old brain thought that you could win a guy’s heart by besting him. (I succeeded, but he turned out to be gay, so that didn’t work out as I’d planned.)

The morning after the surgery, a nurse described all the things I needed to be able to do before I was discharged.  I thrive on challenge and was discharged within 36 hours of being admitted.

Jim had been there every second I was conscious. After each drug-induced nap, I would wake up with another stuffed cat on the bed. He gave me a total of four, one for each of the furry girls waiting for me at home.

In the midst of my fog the morning after surgery, I also remember Saketh Guntupalli checking up on me. It was that face I had first seen in the picture—kinder and more caring than you might expect from a professional cancer killer.

The first round of chemo was a breeze, except that I lost my hair. Two days before Christmas, I was sitting at the kitchen counter eating a marvelous pancake breakfast that Jim had prepared and I ran my fingers through my hair. I got a hunk between my fingers.

“Call Randy,” was all I said.

Our friends Elizabeth and Randy had experienced the challenges and rewards of Elizabeth’s breast cancer. She had told us he knew how to shave a head. And so we had a Christmas party that began in the garage with my blonde hair—what was left of it—all over the concrete floor.

Christmas arrived and I had not told my mother or brother why Jim and I would not be joining them. I am the self-absorbed one in their minds—this may be my take on their judgment—so it wasn’t really that odd that we didn’t fly to Pennsylvania for prime rib. Jim and I went to church, sharing some peaceful moments with Father Seth, who had said a special Mass for me in November after I had gotten the diagnosis. As a former professional baseball player, he knew how to arouse the competitor in a fellow athlete.  After the Mass focused on my healing, he said, “I’ve never lost anyone after one of these.” In other words, “Don’t you dare spoil my batting average!”

My birthday is on January 5. Jim wanted to take me out, but I balked. My pink fleece hat didn’t go with any nice clothes. But he had a surprise planned.

He drove us to the Greeley office of the American Cancer Society and the blessed volunteer helped me try on wigs. She cried with me as I found my new, old look. And then Jim took me out to lunch at a lovely restaurant where I debuted my short, blonde hair that looked exactly like the short, blonde hair I’d had for the previous 25 years.

It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I ate a gourmet hamburger. The best hamburger ever.

Two more rounds of chemo followed and each time, I wore the same magenta pullover that Jim had given me; we called it the “healing top.” The other ritual was that Jim brought me treats. Stuff I really liked—dark chocolate with sea salt, with raspberries, with almonds. When you are in a vinyl lounge chair for six hours, with an attending nurse in a hazmat suit to protect her from the toxins being pumped into your body, these treats are your hope. Your connection with the person who loves you. A dark-chocolate square becomes a 10-carat diamond.

Jim did something else regularly. It was subtle, quiet thing he did behind closed doors and it was one of the best painkillers you can imagine: He sorted through all of my medical bills, haggled with the insurance company, sent the payments on time for all my treatments, and kept all the records in chronological order in a manila file folder.

After the chemo, came the third and final segment of treatment: brachytherapy, which is an internal radiation therapy. An irradiated rod would be inserted into me with a nuclear physicist nearby and the radiation oncologist and his team of technicians and nurses behind a wall shielding them from radiation. This would happen six times in two weeks. Jim brought me there each time, waiting for me while I got zapped, and then took me someplace fun like Starbucks or Costco.

Calm and smiling Amber, a physician’s assistant, sat down with Jim and me and discussed what the brachy treatment required after the fact. Whoa. Big news here. With this kind of therapy, the patient has to keep the vaginal opening from becoming extremely narrow and inflexible. If I didn’t either use a medically approved device at least four times a week—a prescription dildo—to keep my vaginal canal open, then it would start to seal. It would literally seal shut.

Or, I could have intercourse four times a week for the next few months.

Amber sat across the table from Jim and me. He had already proven his commitment to solving problems by putting a sugar packet underneath one of the table legs to stabilize it so it would stop shaking.

“How do you want to handle this?” she asked.

Jim looked at me and had a slight smile on his face. He put his hand over mine. He looked to me for an answer. I nodded.

“We’ll have sex,” he told her.

It would be a sweet story if I could just say that we were just a couple of 60-ish kids having fabulous sex four times a week and we lived happily ever after. But that isn’t the story and you probably wouldn’t believe it if I said it were. The true part is that statement is that we were 60-ish.

Picture this: You’re a healthy, fit man facing an abdomen with five small puncture wounds from surgery; a head of white, kinky fuzz; a body de-toning from lack of exercise; a dried up, shrinking vaginal canal; and an attitude that broadcasts “Sleeping is so much better than sex.” You might agree that defines the antithesis of an erotic encounter.

This is a time when, without love, there is no joy.

I looked into his eyes the first time...and it was like the first time. We were overcome by fascination and curiosity. How could we make this work—this prescribed sexual encounter four times a week—and have it be great. Jim and I never did just “good.” Our lives were about “great.”

We laughed. This would only work if we laughed.

Five years later, we are still laughing.