Thoughts on marriage and cancer…

As we’ve emailed back and forth, Mandy and Jay and I have talked about how “cancer” is definitely something woven throughout their love story and how it’s affected choices they have made as it relates to their marriage, friendship, and commitment to one another. Today’s interview is a glimpse into the part where “in sickness and in health” has been put to the test. How do marriages survive hardship, disappointment and tragedy? Can they make it through?! The wisdom and insight Mandy and Jay share is priceless advice whether a terminal illness is part of the recipe or not! We’d all be the wiser for putting into practice some of the examples of unconditional love these guys display.

Some days there's enough strength to head outside and breathe in fresh air by the Tennessee River.

Some days there’s enough strength to head outside and breathe in fresh air by the Tennessee River.

Thoughts from Mandy on Unconditional Love:

  • When I think of unconditional love – this is what I see: A mother holding her newborn for the first time; The look a dog gives to his/her person; a man holding his wife’s hand as she lies in a hospital bed; a husband kissing his wife’s bald head and telling her how beautiful she is; parents visiting their child in prison and telling them how much they love him/her; friends flying thousands of miles to sit quietly with you, laugh with you and cry with you; an elderly man gently feeding his wife even though she no longer remembers who he is; a man hanging on a cross begging “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jay, what would you share with other couples who receive a cancer diagnosis?

“Cancer is scary, so try not to let it overwhelm you to the point that it paralyzes you. So often, the news comes and hits you like a brick. Then, you are inundated with doctor visits, treatment options, family and friends telling you of the latest treatment options they read about on Facebook, etc. If your spouse has just been diagnosed with cancer, my advice would be to first go and sit together in a quiet room, look each other in the eyes, cry like little babies and let the emotions come out. Scream if you need to. But, after all of the emotions are out and you feel like you just want to give up before it even begins, grab each other’s hands and tell each other that you love each other and give each other the biggest hug you have ever given. Then, start doing your research, be your own advocate, and make informed decisions about YOUR life. It is tough, it is difficult to have to make the transition from being normal to now fighting cancer, but you can do it, together!”

Fresh air is a theme for these guys. It seems fresh air could work wonders for any marriage.

Fresh air is a theme for these guys. It seems fresh air could work wonders for any marriage.

From Mandy, “Cancer has been part of our journey from the very beginning, we just didn’t know it. When we got married, I was experiencing terrible abdominal pain. My doctor kept waving the symptoms away and prescribing pain medications. We had been married 16 months when I finally went to an OB/GYN and had diagnostic surgery done. I remember waking up and seeing tears in Jay’s eyes. I was so drug addled I couldn’t even process the information when the doctor explained what she’d found. I will never forget the look of love, pain and fear mingled together on Jay’s face that day.

Once you learn you have cancer, you and your spouse have a very real, candid choice to make. Cancer will either destroy a marriage or bond you closely together forever. You have to choose – you have to decide. You cannot make that choice in the middle of the night when your spouse cannot lift their head off the bathroom floor – you have to make that choice as soon as you first hear that “C” word.

I am beyond thankful, grateful that we chose, and that we said out loud to each other, “We are in this together and together, we will get through this.” Did that choice make things easy? NO! Did that choice make cancer less ugly, less deadly? NO! What that choice did was let both of us know that no matter how many nights spent in hospitals, on planes seeking treatments, no matter how many times Jay had to pick me up off the bathroom floor, no matter how many pills and shots he had to administer – He would BE THERE! Never once have I questioned his love or his commitment to honor that long ago promise.”


Jay, as a caregiver and advocate, what would you share with other husbands specifically, sitting around a table with you who have just learned their wives were diagnosed?

“Guy’s, it’s time to put your big boy pants on! This is going to be the toughest thing you will ever do. You will need to be a husband, a nurse, a nanny if you have kids, a housekeeper, a cook and a researcher. Oh yeah, you will need to do this while still working your normal job, because the bills keep coming in. You need to be at every doctor’s appointment, not only to support your wife, but to question the doctor and to know what path your wife is being led down to treat her cancer. You need to be a counselor to your wife and your families. You are going to be tired and want to give up, you are going to have thoughts about what you will do if your wife dies, you are going to envy your friends that have healthy wives, and that’s OK, as long as you end the day by kissing your wife, encouraging her and laying down next to her in bed.

One of the most important roles you will play will be becoming a buffer between your wife and your friends and family with good intentions, who always want to be there doing something for her. You will need to know when your wife can handle company, or when she needs to rest. You may have to tell your in-laws that they cannot come over today because your wife needs to sleep, or that she would rather lay on the couch and watch Hallmark movies. Whatever the case may be, you will need to have the fortitude to do what is best for your wife.

Every counselor and social worker and checkout girl at the grocery store will tell you, “As a caregiver, you have to remember that you need to take time for yourself. You need to go and do things you like to do so that you stay healthy and can be there for your wife.” Good luck! I can probably count the times I did this on one hand. It was usually because my wife forced me to and a friend came and drug me away from her. One, I knew that if anyone was going to give my wife the best care and attention it would be me! Two, the guilt I felt from going and trying to have fun while my wife was sick at home, was worse on me than just staying home and missing out on a game of golf or hunting or whatever the activity was. I can only estimate here, but I would say I have spent close to 2 years of my life playing the role as a true caregiver. I mean really being a caregiver, one who is there to care for his wife because she is too sick to care for herself. It is exhausting, and frustrating and, at the same time, the best feeling in your life when your wife looks at you and you can see she is glad that YOU are the one there taking care of her and not some nurse or friend or family member.

Lastly, I would encourage you to talk to your wife. Don’t be afraid to discuss anything and everything. Talk about life and death, talk about future plans (even if deep down you are wondering whether she will be around for them), discuss how each of you are feeling; emotionally, physically, spiritually, and don’t forget to continue to pray together. (Or start praying together.) Prayer has been a tough one for me. I tend to repeat the same prayer, asking for the same things, but what I have come to realize over the years, it’s not how eloquent your prayers are, it’s how heartfelt they are that really makes a difference in you (and in your wife). Just knowing that you care enough to pray to God on her behalf can bring a peace and calmness to your wife.”

Long hair, ocean air...2008, here we go again after almost 12 years of remission.

Long hair, ocean air…2008, here we go again after almost 12 years of remission.

*I’m still blown away Mandy and Jay agreed to share with me “live from hospice” portions of their story. It’s surreal Mandy and I haven’t met in person because when we message back and forth, our hearts “get” each other. I love her soul and am grateful I’m getting to know her now, as well as getting to know Jay outside high school. Some may think it tragic to forge a friendship during hospice. I don’t see life that way, but rather, what better time than today? And my heart swells knowing the gift of love and friendship isn’t bound to this space and time…

…still to come, part 4, and more…

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