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OnLove - One Year In: Karolyn and Jerry Lewandowski Rejoice Despite Illness

The Lewandowskis, committed to each other and to his cancer battle.
The Lewandowskis, committed to each other and to his cancer battle. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

One Year In

For three straight months, Karolyn Blumer waited for it to happen. She knew it was coming -- they'd talked about it. In September 2007, after dating for two years and living together for six months, she and Jerry Lewandowski decided it was time to get engaged.

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The whole thing had started as a summer fling; he was still reeling from the breakup of a marriage and she was wary of getting involved. But their casual friendship had already morphed into romance, so they decided to just have fun -- to keep making each other laugh -- until the fall. Two autumns later they were still having fun. And she was waiting.

"I was the girl going, 'We talked about it! Where's the ring? Why isn't this happening?'," the 33-year-old remembers.

The week before Thanksgiving, Karolyn had nasal surgery and Jerry took off work to watch over her, fetching drinks and changing bandages. All the while he wasn't feeling so well himself -- his stomach was swollen and he couldn't figure out why he was gaining weight. The day after the holiday, unable to bend over to tie his shoes, Jerry shuttled himself to the emergency room while Karolyn stayed at their Arlington home in a codeine haze.

Five hours later he called saying they wanted to keep him overnight, and thought it might be something with his heart. Karolyn went straight to the hospital, where she would stay for most of the next seven days while they tried to determine what was wrong with her 33-year-old boyfriend, who'd never been seriously sick in his life. "It was like we were in an episode of House but with none of the drama and the quick humor," she says.

After an exploratory surgery, a doctor called Karolyn and told her, simply, "There are tumors everywhere." He also said he might not be able to make it to Jerry's room to break the news until the next day. So she went herself, crawled in beside him, whispered the awful words and held his face as they both cried.

It had a name: pseudomyxoma peritonei -- a rare abdominal cancer that affects one in a million people. His case was advanced. Karolyn's childhood neighbor was a gastroenterologist who connected the couple with Armando Sardi, a leading specialist in Baltimore who laid out Jerry's two options: Try to fight the tumors bit by bit, knowing it will eventually be terminal, or try a newer, more radical option that involves cutting out the tumors and portions of the organs to which they are attached.

They scheduled the grueling procedure that might offer a full cure, drove home and sat on the couch to eat ice cream in their stifling sadness. It was Dec. 7. Jerry had planned to propose the next day, his birthday. Her saying yes was the gift he'd been wanting.

But that was before. Now he wasn't sure he could do it. "I'm tainted goods and it's all a mess," he remembers thinking. "It seems totally unfair to say, 'Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?' It's like a dead-end job.' "

Karolyn, meanwhile, hadn't even thought about an engagement since before her own surgery. But she found herself laying her head on his shoulder that night and saying, "I still want to marry you."

"I was just relieved and really happy she was crazy enough to say that," he says.

It wasn't craziness, Karolyn insists. It was certainty. "I was so sure he was the one for me," she says. "And I knew I wanted to be with him no matter what. And this is the no-matter-what."


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