We were still tanned from our honeymoon when we shakily entered our first meeting with the oncologist. My husband Tommy and I were bright and shiny newlyweds when we got the call: Tommy’s massive weight loss was not from his pre-wedding workout efforts (as we had been trying to convince ourselves); it was stage III esophageal carcinoma.
Getting news like this at any stage of a relationship will rock your world, but having it thrust upon you during the tender, early days of a brand new marriage is something that does not come with a guide book. We both knew of people who had faced cancer, but neither of us had any peers to turn to for advice. This wasn’t something that happened to people our age… was it? We felt alone in the task of trying to figure it out. Life decided to deliver an earthquake, just as we’d begun to find our footing.
If you or a loved one has ever been on the receiving end of a diagnosis call, you know time stops. Your life changes forever. In those first few moments, disbelief swirls with denial. Deep down, you knew “cancer” was a possibility, but you had been denying, denying, denying it to your core.
This experience has irrevocably altered and enriched the way we love each other and redefined for us what love is.
Tommy and I were 26 years old. We were still trying to figure out how to acquire our own health insurance when we suddenly found ourselves frantically calling hospitals to find a “cancer doctor” (barely knowing the term “oncologist”). Our friends’ parents recommended hospitals we had never heard of and doctors recommended treatments we could barely pronounce. It was all we could do to look each other in the eye without falling to pieces. I saw my sweet, new husband filled with fear, and I felt like I was drowning, unable to help because I had no idea which direction to swim.
I was still trying to figure out what it meant to be a wife. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How can I serve this marriage, and how can this marriage serve me? In less than two months, the label “newlywed wife” turned into “chief caregiver.” Days before Tommy’s diagnosis, I spent the afternoon at a Social Security office, tediously trying to change my last name. I called afterward to complain to my sister about the hassle, blissfully unaware of the wave of trauma that would soon overtake us. Suddenly “wife” meant so much more.
Honeymoon Wife, Newlywed Wife, Cancer Wife—all are titles I wore within the first three months of our marriage. The first time I had the opportunity to say, “I’m Tommy Walker’s wife,” was at a hospital. The first person to ask me, “Are you his wife?” was a doctor. My new title had a unique context. I have had countless moments of being completely overwhelmed during this process. You might expect the weighty title of “Cancer Wife” to add to this stress, but somehow it didn’t. Instead, it helped me understand what I needed to do and remember why I entered this marriage in the first place—“for better or worse, in sickness and in health.”
There’s no guarantee that tomorrow will be easier. But this is the most important thing I have ever done
Being a young “cancer wife” has shown me what it means to be a true partner in life, and it’s not at all how I pictured “being in love.” It is not about breakfasts in bed, thoughtful notes, or cute gifts you hide around the apartment. It is not about telling your partner “I love you” when you wake up and when you go to bed. It is about telling them you know it will be okay when your world is crashing in and you have no way of knowing that’ll even be true. It is about holding them when they need it, even when you feel weak. It is about laughing together when you should be crying, and crying together when you should be laughing. It is about putting your life on hold, and not searching for blame. It is understanding the moments that you are pushed away because your partner doesn’t feel well. It is about being gracious and present when they have the energy to spend on you. It’s also about having the courage to share your fears and pain with them, even if you feel like you ought to have enough strength for the both of you.
Do I wish Tommy could have been spared this trauma? I would take it away from him in a heartbeat. Has our world been flipped upside down? Have our hearts expanded and wills tested? Yes, and I am so grateful. This experience has irrevocably altered and enriched the way we love each other and redefined for us what love is.
Cancer does not pause your life. Time does not stop, and neither does your relationship. If some morning you wake up and feel like you are losing some of what you have built together, take a good look at what you have accomplished—the appointments attended, the decisions made, the surgeries taken on, the treatments overcome, the impossible mornings pushed through, the sleepless nights outpaced, and the inspiration you have become to others.
Whether you are a caregiver or a patient, you are moving mountains, and you are doing it as a team. This growth is worth decades of “typical years” in a marriage or relationship. The perspective and personal development you now understand are on a scale that could never have been taught by “I love yous” or little gifts. So, you don’t get to follow the typical newlywed path; WHO CARES? You are adding strength and love to your life and courage to your journey. That is true partnership.
I have no idea what being a wife will look like next week, next month, or in the next decade. I only know what it looks like this morning. This morning, being a “cancer wife” is sticky, messy, and confusing. There’s no breakfast-in-bed waiting for me or my husband. There’s no guarantee that tomorrow will be easier. But this is the most important thing I have ever done, and if being a “cancer wife” for a while makes me a better wife as we travel through life together, I can find space in my heart to appreciate it.
Jessica Walker is a 28-year-old entrepreneur living in NYC with her husband Tommy. He has been fighting esophageal cancer the past year and a half and is currently on a successful immunotherapy clinical trial. Jessica created a planner called ‘The Better Book’ last year to help Tommy stay organized during his treatment. She has since self-published, and the planner is now being used by thousands of people across the country. She took this idea and her love of greeting cards and created Better and Company, which is a space used to support and encourage all people touched by cancer.
Shop Better + Company products in the cW shop.