Love on bor­rowed time

Can­cer pa­tients find ro­mance de­spite ter­mi­nal prog­no­sis

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - 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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