How to Stay Young and in Love as a Cancer Caregiver

By Heather Francis

Some people worry when they get married that they won’t be able to handle the challenges of life as a couple. That won’t be a problem for my fiancé and me.

young adult cancer, stem cell transplant
Heather and Harry, young and in love. June 2015.

Harry and I started dating in April 2011, when I was 24 and he was 25. Soon after, he started feeling fatigued, having night sweats, and getting nose bleeds. That October he found out he had Stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma.

The doctors – prior to his coming to Dana-Farber – told Harry his cancer was easily treatable. He would have six months of chemotherapy, and the drugs wouldn’t affect his life in a huge way.

For a while this was true. During the first round of infusions Harry lost his hair but didn’t get very sick. We still went on dates or out with friends. At that time, I was more cheerleader than caregiver.

Throughout our experience with Harry’s cancer there have been some weird moments. The doctors had told Harry he should save some sperm since there could be fertility issues associated with chemotherapy. One day we were with his parents and his mother suddenly said, “Harry, you need to call the cryogenic center right away, this can’t wait!” We hadn’t even talked about marriage, let alone children. Now we can laugh about it as we’re planning a family.

A few months after his treatment, Harry had a scan that showed his cancer was still there. His doctors tried a more intensive chemotherapy regimen, and when that didn’t work they told him he needed a stem cell transplant. Harry’s mother heard Dr. Philippe Armand at Dana-Farber was a leader in stem cell procedures, and we moved our care to Dr. Armand for a two-part transplant that offered a better survival rate.

Shortly before he went into the hospital for his first transplant, in January 2013, we found out Harry could no longer live alone because he would be much more susceptible to infection. We had been dating for almost two years, so I said, “Why don’t we move in together?” I knew I could care for him better than a roommate could, and he didn’t want to move back in with his parents.

young adult cancer
The paper flower bouquet Harry made for Heather on Valentine’s Day.

I moved into our new apartment the first week of February and Harry came home a few weeks later on Valentine’s Day bearing homemade paper flowers (he couldn’t be near real flowers at the time). I still have them.

Because of the danger of infection, we had restrictions for several months on who could visit. We also couldn’t be around big crowds, and many friends had a hard time understanding what we were going through. Everyone our age knows someone with cancer, but it’s usually a grandparent or parent, not a peer or partner.

I didn’t want his cancer and recovery to define our relationship, so I made sure we still had fun. Even though he couldn’t travel long distances, we took day trips. We both love to cook, so we did that together. Once we had an Italian night where we made pizza and Italian soda and watched “Roman Holiday.” Intimacy looks different during cancer, but you just have to be creative to maintain romance.

For a while Harry wouldn’t talk about the future, because he didn’t know if he was going to get through his illness. Going back to work last fall was a huge step for him – and I think it helped him feel ready to take the next step with me. We got engaged in February 2015, and now we’re talking about having a family. It’s been two years since his last transplant, and he’s in remission and doing great.

I have three pieces of advice for people caring for a spouse or partner with cancer:

  • Communicate. That’s the only way you’re going to know what each other’s needs are.
  • Keep romance in your life. Maybe the romantic part of your relationship will change, but date nights are no less important whether they’re in a restaurant or your living room.
  • Take a break. You can’t only be a caregiver and lose your other identities as a partner and individual.