By Gwen Darien
By Gwen Darien
As readers of CR know, I generally write about life after cancer from the perspective of a long-term survivor, building upon stories in the pages of the magazine. In this issue, relationships are a prominent theme. So when Jessica Gorman, CR’s deputy editor, suggested that I write about couples, my first response was, “Good idea.” But then I thought, What am I going to say?
While much of CR’s winter issue focuses on couples coping with cancer, there are many cancer survivors, like myself, who went through diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment experiences without a partner. I began thinking about CR’s mission to share information and perspectives with our readers, and about my personal and professional pledge to be honest and direct about my life with cancer. I realized that I’m willing to talk about many intimate issues, but I’m very private when it comes to certain aspects of my life. Much of it is painful—the isolation of a cancer diagnosis, followed by alienation and loneliness. It’s difficult to write about.
Thinking back, my diagnosis and treatment caused me to reassess my professional life and to change my career. And, like so many survivors, I found that my friendships were transformed—many were strengthened, some broken. But the most profound interruption was in my personal life.
Cancer has continued to be a major influence on that part of my life throughout the last 15 years. Diagnosed at 35, I had felt increasingly unwell during the preceding year. Divorced, after a short marriage, I was single throughout treatment. The early years of dating post-treatment were disastrous: I wasn’t particularly reluctant to tell men that I had been diagnosed with cancer; rather, for me, the difficulties stemmed more from how I felt about my body. So much of my 30s were shadowed by cancer, unexplained illness, treatment, recovery and an attempt to re-establish an intimate life. From this perspective, 15 years later the years feel lost.
Then, when I was 40, I found a wonderful partner. Only four years out of treatment, I was much more concerned about my health than his—the fear that my cancer would return was ever present. But when he died suddenly of undiagnosed heart disease, a different kind of grief took hold. I couldn’t escape the thought (superstition, perhaps) that my personal life was cursed. During this time, the specter of recurrence ebbed and flowed, never fully disappearing. In many ways, worrying about my health was easier than focusing on my loss. Meanwhile, throughout my 40s, more friends died of cancer and other diseases. More loss.
So, as has always been my tendency, I worked and worked. I found satisfaction, friendship and purpose in patient advocacy work, an unexpected and unasked-for career. Yet, despite some relationships during this time, the personal loneliness and the alienation of being a relatively young cancer survivor persisted. Until recently.
This year, I’m about to mark 15 years of survivorship, and my 50th birthday. Even though it feels like my personal life was disrupted during a significant portion of those years, in the last year I’ve found deep and, I hope, lasting personal happiness with a new partner. I try not to regret the lost years, instead focusing on how fulfilled I now feel (though I don’t always succeed). But if, as my 14-year-old niece, Catherine, says, 50 is the new 27—and even if it isn’t—I’m planning for a long and happy road ahead.