I spent Valentine’s Day 2017 with my husband Matthew; we didn’t bother making reservations anywhere. Our marriage was on the rocks. We had been working on our relationship for years, trying to find a way back to the kind of Love that comforts, not demands. Love that is unafraid of disagreements and differences but finds a way to communicate and appreciate. Love that heals, not hurts. We were exhausted.
That day, everything changed. My husband had been complaining about back pain and a persistent, bad cough. His doctor had sent him to get scans after x-rays showed water in his lungs. So, on Valentine’s Day, of all days, we sat in a hospital room waiting for the CT scans to be taken.
Two days later, back in the hospital, we got the diagnosis from the young ER doctor. Matthew had Stage 4 non-smoker’s lung cancer. He had never smoked, and his family had no history of cancer.
We were stunned into silence. My mind raced back to 2006, when I had gotten the call that my dad had Stage 4 cancer. My body remembered the fear I had felt then, and my mind brought up thoughts and memories that would easily pull me right back into that fear. I took a deep breath and resisted. Then, Matthew said, “We will live through this. I want to live through this.”
The kids were still in school when we got home. We held each other and we cried. Matthew looked at me and said, “Can we put all our struggles, all our fights, the arguments, the talks about divorce behind us?” I whispered, “I love you. I’m not going anywhere.”
Immediately, I felt peace and a sense of togetherness I had desired for years. This was a turning point. Not the kind we had ever wanted, but we don’t get to choose.
For three years, my husband and I had produced “Waking Up in America,” a TV show about other people’s turning points. I had even written and published a companion book “Turning Points,” filled with individuals’ stories of overcoming.
As an artist and storyteller, I was passionate about helping people create turning points in their lives – before a tragic one makes the changes for them. As a holistic life coach, I help them deal with the pain of life’s events they can’t control. Now we were in it. I was devastated and angry, but also grateful that I felt prepared because of the work I had done, all centered around learning to heal deeper, love more and uplift others.
When our three sons came home, Matthew gave them an honest, but hope-filled assessment. He told them we would live through it, and we were going to live every moment of it with joy, with belief, with faith and with hope. And with Matthew at the center of it, despite the pain, every day seemed to bring us some form of healing.
My dad’s illness and his eventual passing 11 years earlier taught me that if we allow grief, emotional pain and fear of death to consume us, we lose the wonderful moments we are in right now. This time, I made a daily decision to keep my mind focused on gratitude and simple joys. I had to recognize the pain, allow it to pass through me and not hold onto it.
Almost immediately, Matthew felt a tidal wave of love directed at him from friends, family, college acquaintances and people who had never met him but had heard of him and his adventurous, fearless and incredibly caring spirit. “I never knew so many people loved me,” he said, overwhelmed with emotion. He leaned into that love and let it carry him through the ups and downs of his painful journey with cancer. Many times, he called his cancer a Gift that allowed him to discover God in a much more real way, embrace Love more than ever before and inspire thousands of people through his updates.
I learned to love in a way I hadn’t known before. I knew I wanted to do what was best for him – such as adjusting his diet and trying some natural ways to slow the cancer growth. Soon, it became obvious that what I thought was best for him maybe wasn’t. Meditation, yoga and sound therapy might calm me down, but it only made him more anxious and frustrated.
Praying in a traditional way was what brought him comfort. A cancer-fighting diet (according to my beliefs) made him miserable and hungry. I had to step away and not interfere. That was the hardest thing I had ever done. If I truly loved him, I had to do just that – love him. Let him make his own choices without my judgment, only with love. Bringing more stress into his already stressed body, mind and spirit wasn’t going to help.
We learned that hope is crucial for survival. Each new cancer treatment brought us hope. When one failed, Matthew looked for another with the determination of that first “We are going to live through this” decision.
We also learned to trust the process – somehow a hundred little things fell just right, and Matthew found himself at Sarah Cannon Research Center with a team of top oncologists. One of them found that Matthew was a rare match for a trial of the CAR T-cell therapy. T-cells are removed from the patient’s body, sent to a laboratory to be genetically re-engineered to seek out and destroy cancer cells, and then reinserted into the patient (i.e., Matthew). This is designed to equip the patient’s immune system to, hopefully, eradicate all cancerous cells in his body.
It is our understanding that Matthew will be the third patient worldwide to undergo the CAR T-cell therapy for lung cancer.
It has been a brutally bumpy road for Matthew the last eight months to get here. Along the way he has endured waves of tear-jerking pain, moments of panic when fluid buildups have left him fighting for his next breath, and failed conventional treatments and therapies that at times have left him – and doctors – questioning just how long he can survive.
Through all this, Matthew has been a determined and resilient trooper.
One of my sons called him “Captain America” when he learned about the CAR T-cell trial. It’s uncertain, but Matthew’s participation in it could help many other people.
Eight months after the diagnosis, I lay in bed next to my husband. It’s one of the last nights before he is re-admitted to the hospital for reinsertion of T-cells. He is covered with a Captain America blanket our son bought him for Father’s Day.
I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. We didn’t need cancer to be our turning point, but since we don’t get to control life – only how we experience it – we accepted it. By facing it without fear, we learned how to find the Love we both had had such a hard time locating. The Love that heals, comforts and finds a way to communicate and appreciate despite our differences. The Love that sustains us and all around us.
With that Love, we have hope. With all that’s been done for cancer research; with all the doctors on Matthew’s team sharing that passion and their own faith to fight cancer; we trust that this is a part of a quest toward healing – for Matthew and so many others.