Should I stick with my girlfriend through her cancer?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 30, 2006

We’ve only been together 10 months, but I love her.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been reading your column for years, and appreciate all the honest advice you’ve given. I’ve thought of writing you before, but the problems seemed to resolve themselves.

Not this time.

I have a great girlfriend. I’m approaching 30 and she’s about five years younger. She has had some rough knocks — lost a parent a few years ago, endured her parents’ divorce before that. We’ve been dating for 10 months, which is my longest relationship (though not hers). We’ve talked about moving in together as a step toward marriage. I’m sure that’s what I want to do — I have a hard time with roommates and am petrified of taking the leap of marriage (with all its social and economic implications) without dipping my toe in and seeing how compatible we are. (Currently we live in the same apartment building and spend a lot of time together, but that simply isn’t the same.)

But that’s not my concern. My girlfriend was recently diagnosed with carcinoid, a form of cancer. The good news is that so far she’s relatively asymptomatic; it’s a slow-growing cancer that many folks have lived long lives with, and she’s getting advice on treatment from some of the best folks in the world. The bad news is that it has metastasized, so some of the common treatments may not be an option. We’ll know in a month what the aforementioned best folks have to say about treatment.

I love this woman — she’s intelligent, funny, enthusiastic, willing to try new things, gorgeous, laughs at the same things I laugh at, whimsical. I’ve “dealt” with the cancer issue by putting any decisions off until we know more. Such decisions include moving in together and her moving back to her family for treatment (and her possibly asking me to move from where we are now, close to my family).

Frankly, I’m scared of continuing this relationship, if she only has, say, five years to live. Do I really want to be a widower at 35? I want kids — can I handle being a single parent? (To say nothing of the emotional trauma.) Or even if she lives a normal life span, but with complications, can I handle taking care of my partner?

On the other hand, this is really good. I felt like I’ve grown more over the past 10 months than ever before. I don’t know whether it will lead to marriage, but there are times when I hope so.

I really don’t know what to do. Any advice?

Confused in Colorado

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Dear Confused,

If you do indeed love this woman, this is no time to be making a calculated exit. I have a feeling that if at the age of 30 you have never had a relationship longer than 10 months, you have been exiting when the emotional costs of the relationship are too high. This may be your opportunity to find out what it means to stick with someone through hard times — to be somebody who guts it out for somebody else and doesn’t ask to be excused when things get tough.

Are you ready for this, the great, defining challenge of your life? Are you ready to accept what life has put before you?

I hope you can answer yes. I hope you can put aside whatever cynicism you have acquired by living in an absurd world and recognize that however absurd this world is, it places before us occasional opportunities to respond with unambiguous moral clarity.

There are moments, if you are actually living life, when cynicism cannot approach or tarnish the grandeur of the real thing. This is your life.

Are you ready?

You might not be. You might not grasp what this means. But I think you do grasp what this means and you are ready and you want somebody to help you do the right thing. Why else would you have written to me? If you have been reading the column all this time then you already know what I think. I’m not going to suggest that you ditch this woman and look for something more convenient. I believe in heroic responses. People often say things happen for a reason. I don’t necessarily believe that. But I believe we must live life as if things happen for a reason. We must create meaning. Otherwise we’re just sick, pathetic, clueless bastards!

What I mean is, we create meaning in our lives by responding with our highest selves. We try to do the right thing. To the degree we fail, we fail. But we don’t just walk away from a drowning lover.

In this case the right thing is to stick with this woman through this life-threatening challenge.

What sticking with her means concretely is what you and she must decide together. If she has a supportive family near good medical care then it would seem to make sense for her to go be with her family.

What you and she decide to do I can’t say. But I would suggest that you give her support yet also maintain some distance. That means staying near her but not yet living together. Even if you want to do this great, heroic thing, you should go slowly. You don’t know what would happen if you moved in together and began trying to cope with this thing together. Living together might make things worse, not better. It might be too much for both of you. But I think you should consider moving to the same town where she will be, so that you can be her boyfriend and be there for her and see where it leads. The more support she has near her the better.

The criterion you should use is: Does your action constitute loving help and support for her, or does it constitute hungry, sentimental involvement in her tragedy? It is easy to confuse these things; we may feel a surge of energy at another’s misfortune and use that energy to satisfy a need for drama. Or we may use it to be a quiet source of support.

How can you love her and be of support no matter what happens? That is your question. I would not do anything hastily. That has apparently been your habit: to get into and out of relationships hastily. This is the time to try doing something differently, deliberately, carefully, with the restrained passion of a great love.

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