Love on bor­rowed time

Can­cer pa­tients find ro­mance de­spite ter­mi­nal prog­no­sis

The Chatham Daily News - - LIFE - AD­INA BRESGE

TORONTO — It could have been a meet-cute in a ro­man­tic com­edy be­tween a man and a “mu­tant.”

After weeks of on­line flirt­ing, Pa­trick Bar­dos was en route to meet Anne Marie Cer­ato for their first date at a cof­fee shop in down­town Toronto. He texted Cer­ato to let her know he was only a few blocks away on a packed street­car crawl­ing through rush-hour traf­fic. Cer­ato said she had just passed the same in­ter­sec­tion. “Are you wear­ing blue shoes?” she asked.

Bar­dos looked down at his lapis­blue sneak­ers, then up to search for Cer­ato among the thicket of com­muters. He felt a tap on his shoul­der. Bar­dos turned around, and there was Cer­ato, just like the photo on her dat­ing pro­file — long dark hair and brown eyes sharp­ened by an­gu­lar glasses. Bet­ter yet, un­like many of his pre­vi­ous dates, he was taller than her.

“You’re short,” Bar­dos blurted out. “But I’m short too. And that’s not what I meant.”

Bar­dos must have said some­thing to re­deem him­self, be­cause the two kept talk­ing un­til the cof­fee shop closed. They de­cided to grab a bite at a nearby restau­rant, and once again shut down the house. It was then Bar­dos re­al­ized that he was late for his own birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, so he rushed back to his apart­ment to at­tend to his peeved party guests, who spent the night lis­ten­ing to him rave about this woman he just met.

As smit­ten as Cer­ato, then 33, was with Bar­dos, she knew she didn’t have time to waste on a dead-end re­la­tion­ship. So on their sec­ond date, she de­cided to drop “the bomb.”

Know­ing Bar­dos was a comic book fan, Cer­ato tried to soften the blow by ap­peal­ing to his su­per­hero sen­si­bil­i­ties. “I’m not an alien,” she said, “but I am a mu­tant.”

To Bar­dos’ dis­ap­point­ment, Cer­ato ad­mit­ted she wasn’t a mem­ber of the X-Men. How­ever, she had been ex­posed to her fair share of ra­di­a­tion in treat­ing a form of lung can­cer driven by a ge­netic mu­ta­tion.

After two years in re­mis­sion, Cer­ato had re­cently learned her can­cer had spread, and chances were, she wouldn’t be around in five years.

This was Bar­dos’ chance to run for the hills, Cer­ato said. Bar­dos took a mo­ment to con­sider his dilemma: How does one fall in love know­ing loss is im­mi­nent?

When fac­ing a dis­ease with lifeor-death stakes, mat­ters of the heart may seem like a sec­ondary con­cern. But can­cer can serve as a “lit­mus test” for a re­la­tion­ship — and many fail, said Dr. Robert Rut­ledge, a Hal­i­fax ra­di­a­tion on­col­o­gist.

He said it’s not un­com­mon for peo­ple to sever ties, even mar­riages, with part­ners rather than con­front the prospect of los­ing a loved one to can­cer, and by proxy, face their own mor­tal­ity.

But while some cou­ples col­lapse un­der the strain of sick­ness, Rut­ledge said, for oth­ers, it can heighten emo­tional con­nec­tions. The peo­ple who stand by their part­ners when the end seems near tend to be the ones who are worth the time pa­tients have left, he said.

Sit­ting across from the “mu­tant” he was fall­ing for, Bar­dos re­solved to be that kind of part­ner for Cer­ato.

That was in fall 2011. Seven years later, Bar­dos and Cer­ato are mar­ried, own a house, have trav­elled the world and even cel­e­brated their “25th an­niver­sary,” ad­just­ing their ro­man­tic mile­stones for love on a con­densed time­line.

Be­fore he met Cer­ato, Bar­dos said he would wa­ver be­tween ru­mi­nat­ing about the past, and fret­ting about the fu­ture. Now, Bar­dos said he’s able to im­merse him­self in the mo­ment, so he can spend it with her.

“She made me a bet­ter per­son, very quickly, just by be­ing her­self,” he said.

At 40, Cer­ato said she has de­fied sur­vival statis­tics thanks to re­cent de­vel­op­ments in tar­geted-gene ther­apy. But know­ing her time is fi­nite, she was forced to de­cide what she could live with­out and whom she could not.

“I feel like, in a way, it’s a gift that I was able to re­al­ize that at 30 and not at 60.”

Julie Easley is all too fa­mil­iar with this con­cern, not only as a so­cial sci­en­tist whose re­search has fo­cused on young peo­ple with can­cer, but as a sur­vivor who has suf­fered loss her­self.

When Easley met Randy Cable at a bar in Fred­er­ic­ton in 2004, she felt an in­stant jolt of recog­ni­tion. At 28, Easley’s life had re­cently been handed back to her after beat­ing stage-2 Hodgkin lym­phoma. Cable, then 29, had been di­ag­nosed with colon can­cer and told he had three months to live — that day, the clock had run out.

From then on, it was love on bor­rowed time.

Easley knew the iso­la­tion that can come with fight­ing can­cer. She was do­ing re­search at the hos­pi­tal where Cable was be­ing treated, so she started vis­it­ing him after work.

One night, Cable was too afraid to fall asleep, hav­ing been told he could go into car­diac ar­rest at any mo­ment. Easley of­fered to stay over to mon­i­tor his breath­ing. She crawled into bed with him and put her hand over his chest, feel­ing it rise and fall as they both drifted off. After that, she slept over more often than not, hold­ing hands through­out the night.

At times, it al­most felt like they were a “nor­mal” cou­ple. To en­ter­tain them­selves, they would pre­tend the re­flec­tion in the TV screen re­vealed an­other room in their imag­i­nary apart­ment.

“There’s some­thing about see­ing that strength of char­ac­ter and that beauty of the hu­man spirit when you’re stripped down to your most vul­ner­a­ble state,” she said. “I fell in love with that.”

Easley said it took Cable some time to re­al­ize she was more than just the “girl he was sleep­ing with.” When Easley first told Cable she loved him, he fell silent. He had told his mother that his big­gest re­gret was that he had never been in love, ac­cord­ing to Easley, but she had proved him wrong. “I love you too,” he said, eyes welling up with tears.

In fall 2005, lit­tle more than a year after they met, it be­came clear the end was near. Cable’s friends and rel­a­tives gath­ered around his bed, and he asked Easley to climb in with him. This time, in­stead of her hold­ing him, he cra­dled her in his arms as he died at 31.

Thir­teen years later, Easley con­tin­ues to hon­our Cable’s mem­ory through her work in the young adult can­cer com­mu­nity and feels grate­ful for the mem­o­ries he gave her.

“If you ever truly want to know the value of life, you spend time with some­one who’s fight­ing for every scrap of it,” said Easley. “I knew it would end. The part I didn’t know is the un­ex­pected beauty that hap­pened within that.”

TI­JANA MARTIN /THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Anne Marie Cer­ato, left, and her hus­band Pa­trick Bar­dos pose for a pho­to­graph in their back­yard in Toronto on Satur­day, De­cem­ber 29, 2018.

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