My late husband and I had only known each other for a couple of months when he was diagnosed with stage IV synovial sarcoma — a rare type of soft tissue cancer — in November 2014.
I’d just helped a close friend with a breast cancer diagnosis, so I knew what a battle with cancer looked like and what it would take to get through it. My heart was broken. But I also knew that Josh and I shared something very special — and I wasn’t about to let cancer get in our way.
One of the first things Josh said to me after being diagnosed was that if I decided I didn’t want to see him anymore, he would understand, and that he wouldn’t think any less of me. I told him he wasn’t getting rid of me that easily. I knew that if anyone could love him through this, it was me.
A synovial sarcoma diagnosis
Josh first noticed pain in his lower abdomen in 2013, right after graduating from West Point. But he didn’t want to get kicked out of his U.S. Army Ranger regiment, so he waited until he earned his tab to see a doctor. He’d had a sports-related hernia repaired in that same area a few years earlier, so he associated the pain with that surgery.
Josh first saw a physician here in Nashville in October 2014. That doctor was pretty certain that Josh had a tumor, and that it was malignant. A needle biopsy proved inconclusive, though, so Josh had an open biopsy done at a local hospital. About a month later, we learned he had synovial sarcoma. Josh was only 25.
A second opinion
Josh received synovial sarcoma treatment at a Nashville hospital for about a year before traveling to MD Anderson. After multiple complications, some negative experiences and being told that his only remaining surgical option was amputation of his entire right leg and hip, Josh and I decided to seek a second opinion.
From day one, MD Anderson gave us a renewed sense of hope. Dejka Araujo, M.D., had experience with cases exactly like Josh’s and wasn’t just throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what would stick. And Josh’s surgeon, Valerae Lewis, M.D., was confident she could remove the tumor without amputating his leg and hip.
Dr. Lewis performed Josh’s surgery — called an internal hemipelvectomy — on Jan. 21, 2016. She removed his tumor, part of his pelvis and a lot of his lower abdominal muscle. Muscle flaps from Josh’s legs were used to reconstruct his abdomen, and he spent 10 weeks in the hospital and months afterward regaining his strength in physical therapy.
After his hemipelvectomy, Josh had to say goodbye to snowboarding, his motorcycle and his career in the military. He developed a bowel obstruction and a painful ileus after surgery (where the bowel stops moving stool through the intestines). He also had to use a nasogastric tube for nourishment for a while. But he maintained a positive attitude despite it all, and he never let those setbacks get him down. His tumor had been removed successfully and eventually, he recovered from the surgery.
The happiest day of my life
Josh proposed to me on May 29, 2016. It was the happiest day of my life. But a few months later, Josh’s doctors told us that his cancer had returned. It was spreading rapidly. There were no more treatment options, so if we wanted to get married, we needed to do it soon.
There wasn’t even a question as to whether or not Josh and I would go through with our wedding. We both had plans for a future together, and that included marriage. We also shared a belief that when something like cancer happens, you don’t put life on hold and wait to see if the man upstairs is going to give you more time. You live now.
After looking at our options, Josh and I made our engagement party date our new wedding date. We found the perfect venue in Nashville and got married on Nov. 12, 2016.
A magical ceremony
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Josh and I recited our vows. Everyone could feel the love between us.
The fact that Josh was able to show up at all was a miracle. We’d spent the week before the wedding in the ICU after his health took a turn for the worse. We didn’t know if he‘d make it. But Josh had made me a promise, and he wasn’t going to miss our wedding, even if it killed him.
My one regret
Josh and I only got to enjoy one month of matrimony before he passed away. But he is and always will be my one true love. We experienced things in our short time together that most people never even dream of.
Looking back, I wish more than anything we would’ve gone to MD Anderson for a second opinion before starting any treatment. Had we done that, I truly believe that Josh would still be here today, and much of his needless suffering could’ve been prevented.
One of the things I admired most about my husband was that he never gave up. He never let cancer define him, and he didn’t let it ruin or steal the joy from his life. That mindset is why he continues to inspire me and everyone who knew him — and why his legacy lives on today.