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My Cancer, Our Lives

In this diary of a wife's breast cancer ordeal, a couple share how their different ways of dealing with the challenge made for real triumph.

In this diary of a wife’s breast cancer ordeal, a couple share how their different ways of dealing with the challenge made for real triumph.

I Think I Feel Something

[HEATHER] I ran my middle finger over it again. I touched it once but didn’t really want to touch it again. It didn’t hurt, but it was real. I checked the same spot on my right side, thinking: Surely, there must be another random lump on the other side of my body, just under my right armpit because that’s the way God does things, in twos. But there was nothing on the right side. I asked for a second opinion: “Honey, do you feel this?” I leaned closer to Mark. He sat up. I guided his index finger to the spot. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It wasn’t. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s something there.”

We looked at each other, then looked away. In the seconds that followed I did what I always do—go worst-case scenario: Cancer, chemo, suffering, death, motherless children, some trick sleeping in my bed with my husband, me coming back from the dead just to haunt her ass while also providing guardian-angel-like support to the children. The whole trip took me 20 seconds. It took me half that long to snap out of it. Internal hysteria, external calm. When I spoke again, it was with focus, belying my inner panic. “I have my annual next week. I’ll just have my doctor look at it.” I paused. “Or I guess I could call him tomorrow.”

“Call him tomorrow,” Mark said. He was being fake-calm, too. That scared me.

[MARK] In 13 years of marriage, I have never—ever!—turned down Heather’s request to feel her breasts. But on this particular night, I wished I had. I knew it was a tumor, too, or something that needed to be checked out by a doctor very soon. That’s why I insisted, as calmly as I could, that she call the doctor first thing in the morning.

People talk about that empty feeling you get in your gut when you’re faced with fear. I’d dreaded this day for a long time. I knew her family’s history. I recalled, with vivid fondness, Enee, her beautiful soul of a grandmother who had succumbed to lymphoma the day after Heather’s thirty-second birthday. And her mother’s sister, Aunt Chollie, whose indomitable spirit never wavered, even in her last days. And another aunt, that rambunctious and quick-witted Ruth, who was going through breast cancer treatment at that moment. And let’s not forget her know-every-damn-thing uncle, the one who wears cowboy hats and cowboy boots that hurt his feet (he’s from Jersey), who battled and beat stomach cancer. All of their faces flashed before me. Only my Jamaican pride kept me from bawling like a 43-year-old baby.

While Heather went straight to worst-case scenario—her kids being motherless and me giving away her love to some Beyoncé look-alike—I thought about an empty house and how I’d never give myself to another woman the way I gave myself to her.

For more on “My Cancer, Our Lives,” pick up the September issue of ESSENCE