Ben and I spent the cab ride home from the hospital quietly staring out the window. We had just seen a full-body scan of our little fetus. It was squirming about in its sack of fluid, looking like an adorable alien. The doctor had informed us that everything looked exactly as it should. Yet, we each left the hospital in a mood of somber introspection. We didn’t articulate it then, but what occurred to me clearly after that appointment, and what has only intensified as my perfectly healthy pregnancy continues, is that neither of us is ready to accept good news.
Three years ago, Ben asked me to feel his testicles to see if I felt anything abnormal. He had been complaining that he felt as though someone—our little nephew, maybe?—had kicked one of his balls. I still remember that I had a turquoise manicure when I wrapped my hand around him in an investigative manner. An instinct, confirmed within days by several doctors, told me that I was clutching the site of my husband’s cancer.
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Ben and I learned over the course of that year that cancer is an incomprehensible mess. I suppose this is already obvious to most people, but we were only 25 at the time. At first, we were told that his tumor was contained to his testicle and that simply excising it would be enough. Fine. Like Steve from “Sex and the City” (my main cancer referent at the time), Ben could live normally and even stay fertile with just one testicle.
Weeks later, a second opinion from Sloan Kettering determined that the cancer had actually progressed to a later stage. The lymph nodes in Ben’s upper body would have to be removed in order to eliminate the risk of the cancer spreading further. The surgery was gruesome and terrifying, evidenced by a scar that starts at Ben’s upper chest and travels down to just above his groin. The procedure also left him infertile, but he had banked his sperm beforehand and, with cancer talk cluttering my mind, I didn’t think much about what this would mean later on when we were ready to expand our family.
Once we were told that the removed lymph nodes showed no signs of disease, I felt a sense of great relief. We would get to dodge chemo, the cancer treatment I feared the most based on what I knew about it from TV and movies. We even took a vacation in Mexico to celebrate having finally moved past this shocking stage in our otherwise privileged lives. On the last night of the trip, we clinked our wine glasses like a pair of Real Housewives, and in a victorious manner, toasted to beating cancer.
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And then a few months later, Ben called me after a routine check-up. “Don’t freak out…” He proceeded to tell me that the team at Sloan Kettering reviewed his most recent CT scan and saw a tumor on his lungs. When we came into the office to discuss a treatment plan, his oncologist, a man who always seemed too nice to deal with cancer stories everyday, looked at the floor as he told us how sorry he was. This really almost never happens to testicular cancer patients whose lymph nodes were uninfected, he said. But it happened to us, and chemo was the only way to treat it. Ben would have to start immediately.
As a 25-year-old watching her once chipper, almost annoyingly upbeat husband wither into a bald, eye-brow-less, exhausted shell of himself, I was pushed every day to what I thought was my emotional limit, until I learned the next day that I could be pushed even further. Aside from all of the comparatively minor side effects of chemo (nausea, headaches, burning eyes from the loss of eyelashes), between every cycle, Ben found himself in at least two emergency situations, all of which required immediate trips to the hospital: he’d contract some disgusting stomach virus; his white blood cell count would plummet to scary levels; he’d consequently develop an allergic reaction to the injection that increased his cell count. The list went on.
Life became an absurd barrage of traumatic events, but like anyone forced to acclimate to a new normal, I became less sensitive to them. I expected them. I burst into laughter, not tears, when Ben’s oncologist revealed that the stomach ache Ben felt after his last round of chemo was actually a symptom of appendicitis, which had nothing at all to do with his cancer and necessitated a midnight emergency appendectomy—a precarious procedure for a patient with that weak of an immune system.
I spent an entire year learning to protect myself by expecting the worst, and it worked for me. Sure, I had paralyzing emotional breakdowns throughout that year, but I was also able to be a mostly calm, supportive wife while making sound medical decisions because I wasn’t allowing shock to paralyze me. Moreover, anticipating hardship was not merely a defense mechanism; it was a natural lesson. Any sane person with an analytical faculty who had the year we had would have similarly drawn the conclusion that something sinister is always waiting sneakily around the corner. Mocking the annoyingly trite, unavoidable advice of others to keep a positive attitude, I told friends that the title of my eventual memoir would be “Stay Negative: A Guide to Actually Dealing with Cancer.”
And so, now that I am 31 weeks pregnant with no extraordinary complications, participating in what is pretty much universally considered to be one of life’s greatest joys, I haven’t figured out yet how to transition into a place of celebration. My pregnancy has been intrinsically connected to cancer, not only because of the framework Ben’s illness instilled in me, but also because I had to go through IVF—a process I abhorred—in order to conceive with Ben’s frozen sperm. Every time I jabbed an injection of hormones into my stomach or butt, I tried to focus on the long-term goal of creating a life, but would inevitably begin to think, instead, that IVF, for us, was just another very expensive extension of cancer treatment.
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Even though I became pregnant after my first embryo transfer and have received good news about my pregnancy since, with every doctor’s visit, I am perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone in a white coat to look down toward papers in a file and speak in a familiar, low tone to tell me that something bad is about to happen. It feels uncomfortable to accept the heartfelt congratulations of friends and family after having grown so used to accepting condolences. The thought of having a baby with Ben makes me joyful, but I can’t stop feeling simultaneously like I am living on a borrowed emotion that I am supposed to return soon.
When Ben was sick, a close friend’s mother, also a cancer survivor, told me that the ability to forget would become our most powerful asset. At the time, I assumed she meant that one day, Ben and I would enjoy forgetting the nauseating smell of the cherry-scented Lysol in the chemo suite, the names of the nurses who were good at putting in the IV needle, or the sight of staples holding the skin on Ben’s chest and stomach together. As time continues to pass, I do take comfort in the increasing sense that those memories belong to another person, or at least to another lifetime. But what remains unforgotten is the general expectation that bad news comes relentlessly, like ocean waves.
I wonder if our new roles as parents will enable this type of forgetting, and if it’s possible that Ben and I will experience a rebirth of our own when our baby comes—one that allows us, just like a baby, to experience the present not with persistent apprehension, but with unregretful happiness instead.