Last week I received my fourth dose of chemotherapy with Doxil. The treatment was delayed a couple of days as I was fighting off a nasty cold, but I was able to proceed with treatment on Thursday, January 8th. This cycle of treatment was again quite a difficult experience. Lots of bone pain, fatigue, and generalized malaise, but not as difficult overall as the last one. Fortunately, the symptoms are now starting to subside and I am beginning to feel more normal again. I am scheduled to undergo more MRI scans of the spine, on January 26th and 27th, to assess how things are responding to the last two cycles of Doxil. It is a nerve-wracking experience to be “on hold,” so to speak, and not know what the scans will show. If they suggest the Doxil is no longer helping, I will have some tough decisions to make about what to do next, because the next options are not so great. So, I am doing all I can to focus on staying positive, and trusting that all will be well.
Kristina and I met in 2011, just shortly before I was diagnosed with cancer … and she has been with me every step of the way of this journey. It is hard for me to imagine how I could have made it this far without her love, support, encouragement, and presence in my life. She has been a true God-send to me.
Here is the short story of how we met, and a little bit about who she is as a person.
Kristina and I met in April 2011, in Boulder, CO, soon after I had begun developing ideas for a second book. She is a talented literary agent, and we were introduced by a dear, mutual friend, Peggy Wrenn, who felt we might be a good professional match for my new book given our many common interests. It’s not an understatement to say that the sparks were flying between Kristina and me during our first 2 hour meeting in her office in Boulder. There was so much to talk about, and we were both excited by possibility of working together on this new book. We met again about a week later at a local coffee shop to continue the conversation.
About 2 hours into this second conversation, it was absolutely clear to me that Kristina was a very special person, with very special qualities — and she was very beautiful, too. As the conversation grew deeper and deeper, I slowly but surely came to the clear realization that I was very interested in getting to know her personally; even more so than pursuing a professional relationship. The more I realized this, the more I found myself squirming around in my seat at the coffee shop, trying to figure out how to diplomatically tell her this. Finally, I took a deep breath, and jumped in.
“Kristina,” I said, “I want to share something with you that feels risky for me to share, but it also feels important that I say it. What I want to say is that, after all these hours we’ve spent talking, I realize that I’d really rather date you than hire you as my literary agent. I know this is risky to say, and I hope you are not disappointed, but it’s honestly how I feel. I’m just at that stage in my life where I’ve learned how important it is to speak the truth. I have no idea how you will respond to this, but at least you know where I stand.”
Then, after a long pause, and after taking several really deep breaths, I asked, “So … what do you think?”
The look on Kristina’s face at that moment was a unique combination of shock, surprise, blushing, and trying hard not to look away.
After what seemed like an interminably long time, she finally responded. She said, “Thank you for being so honest. I really didn’t see that coming until you spoke it. I’ve been concentrating so hard on your work, and your new book, that I wasn’t thinking about this other possibility. But I am very open, and even interested, in getting to know you personally, too. Unfortunately, though, I just can’t do it right now.”
My heart flip-flopped when I heard this, and I asked her “Why not?”
She replied by letting me know that she was at the tail end of a relationship that was essentially complete, but she needed some time to fully transition from that. She was also leaving soon to go to the summer Book Expo in New York, and then to spend some time with her mom in Seattle.
“Oh no!,” I exclaimed. “Well, can we at least go out for lunch or dinner before you leave?”
“No,” she said. “I’m really sorry. And I’m not saying no forever. I’d really like to get to know you, too, on a personal level. But I just can’t right now.”
Despite my sincere efforts to persuade her otherwise, she held fast to her boundary. We agreed we would drop exploring working together professionally, and she left town about two weeks later, as planned.
I was really bummed.
Over the next several months, we had minimal contact until July, when she emailed me from Seattle, checking in to say hi and opening up the doorway to renewed communications.
We spent the next three months talking on the phone regularly, sending a lot of emails, and getting knowing to know each other even more deeply. We were surely intrigued about each other, and eager to learn more. Finally, we decided that I would come to Seattle to visit in person for the weekend, and also have a chance to meet her mom, who is a remarkable person herself. So, on Friday, October 21st, 2011, I flew to Seattle. Kristina met me at the airport. I rented a car, and we drove to spend some time with her mom. Then, we left for an adventure at a small, beautiful hotel on Whidbey Island. It was a deep dive together. On Monday, I flew home. The next day, we talked again and decided that Kristina would fly to Boulder that upcoming Friday, and we would spend ten days together.
Kristina arrived that Friday afternoon, and we had a peaceful weekend getting to know each other even more.
Then, the bomb fell. The very next week I was diagnosed with cancer … while she was in the midst of our ten-day visit.
Just prior to my trip to Seattle I had experienced some pain in my calf. An ultrasound and MRI showed a small mass in the right tibial nerve. A top-notch surgeon in Denver said it was almost certainly benign, but needed to be biopsied. I shared all of this with Kristina when I went to see her in Seattle, and she came with me to Denver for the biopsy during that ten-day stay. A few days later, she was with me when the surgeon called to tell me that the biopsy specimen was not only not benign, but, in fact, it showed a high-grade malignant sarcoma.
In that moment, both of our lives changed forever.
After completing the call with the surgeon, I explained to Kristina that dealing with this tumor was going to take some real time and energy, and could become very serious. As an oncologist, I fully understood, and explained, that it would require a complex surgery on my right calf, very likely many weeks of radiation, and a potentially long rehab process. I also explained that the cancer could certainly spread at some point, and even eventually threaten my life. I reminded her that we had not known each other that long, and that she had no obligation to stay.
What happened next was one of those rare “moments of truth” that can happen in one’s life, in which a turn of events can go in one of two completely different directions, and the consequences could hardy be more different.
I watched carefully as Kristina took a long breath, and then, without blinking an eye, said she felt inexplicably, but clearly, called to stay with me — at least until the surgery was completed. And after that, we would see what felt right.
Amazingly, Kristina stayed with me leading up to and after the surgery, which took place the following month, on November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving.
And we’ve been together ever since.
It is hard to find words that adequately describe the intensity of the roller-coaster ride that we have been on together over the past three-plus years. All I can say is that — by some inexplicable miracle of Grace — Kristina has been there with me, accompanying me through multiple surgeries; serious infections; dozens of MRIs, CT scans, and PET scans; weeks and weeks of radiation; countless consultations and follow up visits with a large number of doctors and specialists; five separate trips to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and multiple rounds of exhausting, debilitating chemotherapy. We even moved together to Asheville, NC, in July 2013 — when I was in remission and where I had been recruited to be the medical director of the Mission Health System Cancer Center. And then, when the cancer metastasized further in the Fall of 2013, we moved back to Boulder, CO together, in December 2013.
Through it all, Kristina has been unflinching in her capacity to remain steady and present in the face of the intense pain and sorrow, losses, struggles, and the ongoing uncertainty we’ve been living through — including the ultimate confrontation with the very real possibility that I could die from metastatic cancer.
I have marveled, so many times, at Kristina’s profound inner strength, and her commitment and determination to do all she can do to help me find a way to fight and heal and live — while simultaneously remaining fiercely committed to her own deep, inner psycho-spiritual growth, healing, and awakening.
If you ever wondered if “miracles” and “angels” are real, look no further. For me, Kristina has been and is both a miracle and an angel in my life.
I’m not suggesting that our personal journey together has not had its share of challenges, beyond those inherent in dealing with cancer, because it most certainly has. We had virtually no time for the “normal” kind of romance that most couples enjoy before the almost universal challenges of life and relationships surface. From the very beginning — literally within days of spending our first close, personal time together — we were catapulted head-long into an incredibly difficult and intense cancer journey; one which continues even now, and which continues to consume the pretext of any semblance of “normal” life — the yearning for which is such a sweet, tender, and naturally human longing.
We’ve had to learn how to work through the issues and challenges that most couples experience, in any relationship, while walking through one of the hottest fires either one of us could have ever imagined. We’ve had to consciously grapple with one of the central paradoxes inherent in relationships — namely, how to honor and care for your partner, and yourself, in a truly honest and authentic way — without betraying yourself or them. This is hard enough under so-called “normal” circumstances. It is vastly more complex and challenging when one partner is facing a life-threatening illness like cancer, and virtually everything about the future is uncertain. This is what we have been living through, from the very beginning. Over and over again, I have been amazed by Kristina’s capacity to hold space, with as much kindness, compassion, and self-awareness as possible, for the myriad challenges we have faced along the way.
And yet, somehow, by some great mystery, and through some incredible Grace, we’ve been able to forge a way through these fires. We’ve made it through these three-plus years and are more profoundly connected than ever before by a deep love and caring for each other, and a commitment to each other’s well-being.
Kristina’s incredible strength, devotion, dedication, and capacity to love in the midst of such an inferno is profoundly unique, and inspiring. I have been deeply blessed by her presence in my life. And — once again — I don’t know if, or how, I could have made it this far without her love, wisdom, and support.
So, I am very honored and happy to finally have this chance to write and share about my beloved sweetheart Kristina, with those of you who are following this blog. She is an amazing woman, and a great being. I am profoundly blessed and grateful to be with her.