October 28, 2020

How a Couple Got Each Other Through Cancer

This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.

In September 2015, Jessica learned that she had stage 2B breast cancer, and six months later Dan was told that he had treatable stage 4 colon cancer. They are both now cancer free. Here are some reflections on their capacities and strategies for resilience.

DAN I was in a rehearsal room, casting a play of mine, when a text from Jessica flashed on my phone with the results of her biopsy: “It is cancer.” I felt instantly that everything had changed. I was afraid she would die, of course. But I knew, from previous traumas — abuse as a child, being disowned by my family as a young man — that we would have to change now, too. Not just how we lived, but in some profound sense who we were.

I hoped that we could author at least some aspects of this change. So I advocated with Jessica for a kind of radical optimism — something new for both of us — despite the nauseating statistics and the daunting task ahead. We could choose to imagine, if not assume, a future together.

My response to most conflict has always been more flight than fight, or, more accurately, a kind of stoic forbearance. So during our 16 months of cancer treatments I pulled inward and clung to our small family. I sought to slow time by paying careful attention to our moments together as they passed, and I let most other concerns go. This last part wasn’t difficult — life-or-death predicaments tend to sharpen one’s attention.

JESSICA Maybe it’s the Jersey girl in me, but I was all “fight” when it came to our cancers. When the oncology surgeon was laying out my options, I stopped her and said: “I have a 2-year-old daughter. I need to do everything I can to stay alive for her.” I chose the most aggressive treatment: a double mastectomy with an innovative one-stage breast reconstruction, followed by intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

My plan was to explore every “cancer hack” out there, so that I could stay as healthy as possible during treatment and, hopefully, shield our daughter from the worst. I gathered information from anybody who was willing to talk to me and felt such gratitude that complete strangers would drop everything to share the most private details of their stories. I tried everything, including cooling caps (head covers designed to reduce hair loss), frozen mittens and bootees to prevent neuropathy, twice-weekly acupuncture and boatloads of supplements. And, as if miraculously, the hacks all worked. Our daughter, Bebe, never knew I was sick, so she was never afraid. She still thinks these perky boobs are all mine.

When I receive calls from women who have just been diagnosed, I stop everything to talk to them. I always share with them something that was said to me when I was in the depths of my chemo treatment: When this is all over, you will actually be happier than before. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s been true for me. I know what matters now: the people I love. So I spend as much time as I can expressing that love and letting myself receive love in return.

DAN The pandemic has stirred up some troubling memories of “chemo quarantine” for both of us. Habit and ritual — to say nothing of magical thinking — helped me a lot during that time. Despite my nightly panic and dread, I would pull open our bedroom curtains each morning, speaking to myself softly, like a mantra, “You’re going to live, you’re going to live.” I feel some measure of that same doggedness these mornings now, as I throw wide the same curtains to our current uncertainties.

Today I write more regularly than during treatment, because I feel healthy. But writing in the midst of turmoil is a practice that has always saved me. And like Jessica, I feel an obligation, even a privilege, to tell the truth of what we have been through. This is the same impulse that made me want to become a writer in the first place, as a boy discovering authors who seemed to reach out of their isolation into mine. What they wrote made me feel stronger and made me believe that it was — and is — possible to survive.

JESSICA When the pandemic hit, I felt angry. We were finally comfortable living what I like to call our post-cancer “heck yes life,” saying yes to opportunities for joyfulness at every turn. And now here we were being forced inside again, forced to fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones, forced to wait for time to pass. This anger felt familiar.

Not long after Dan’s treatment finished, when the possibility of losing him had receded a bit, the fight response that had served me so well for so long turned into a seething, blistering anger— that we’d gotten cancer so relatively young (I was diagnosed at 39, Dan at 42) and at essentially the same time, that while our friends were having a second child, we were fighting desperately for our lives. But I couldn’t very satisfyingly get angry at cancer. I could, however, decide that I needed to completely overhaul my life, my home and my marriage. I ripped out my kitchen cabinets, Marie Kondo’ed my closets until I had two T-shirts left and dragged a bewildered Dan to counseling, where we paid an old man who looked like a cartoon stork to tell us we should schedule more date nights. I raged for months and almost destroyed the very thing I had fought so hard to save.

Thankfully I woke up to what was happening and found a trauma therapist who has been teaching me how to calm my body in order to calm my mind. When I’m triggered by an overwhelming memory or feeling, I’m able to locate where the emotion is manifesting in my body, ground myself with physical activity and access positive memories in a practice called resourcing. I used to be ashamed of what I like to refer to as my “nervy breaky,” but I share it now so that people going through the same thing might be able to recognize it and ask for help. We don’t have to do this alone.

DAN We both feel that our greatest responsibility now is to help our daughter cultivate her own sense of resilience. At 6 years old, she can’t help but notice how drastically her life has changed.

JESSICA These last few months we’ve seen anxiety in her that we haven’t seen before: an eye tick, worry about her grandparents far away in New Hampshire. Kindergarten-by-Zoom this spring mostly bummed her out.

DAN I know from personal experience that children are capable of adapting to almost anything, but without guidance those adaptations can have repercussions later in life. My hope is that our daughter is learning some healthy coping skills from both of our imperfect models.

JESSICA As you would expect in a father who’s a poet-playwright, Dan’s very good at listening to what Bebe is feeling and helping her to find the words to express these new emotions. He’s teaching her to be patient with herself, and with the world around her.

DAN And from Jessica our daughter is learning how crucial it is to reach out — to ask for help and to offer it. I’ve always admired Jessica’s talent for friendship and connection. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her. And I feel lucky that she’s able to pass along these skills to Bebe.

JESSICA Four years ago, in the waiting room before one of Dan’s treatments, an older woman tottered over to us, grasped his hand and said, “You’re going to have long days on this earth … Keep trusting.” And that’s exactly what we’re doing, or trying to do, and hoping to teach our daughter.

Jessica St. Clair cocreated and starred in “Playing House” and “Best Friends Forever.” She is currently in “Avenue 5” and “Space Force.” Dan O’Brien is a playwright, poet and a Guggenheim Fellow in Drama. His poetry collection, “Our Cancers,” and a collection of his essays on playwriting, “Of Time and the Theatre,” are to be published in 2021. They live with their daughter, Bebe, in Santa Monica, Calif.