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In Sickness and in Health, Even When the Former Comes First

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.

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."

In January 2008, after a 13-hour surgery where 30 pounds of tumors were removed from Jerry's stomach, Sardi came out to the waiting room, hugged Karolyn and told her it had gone as well as it possibly could have. They'd had to remove Jerry's spleen, appendix and gallbladder and part of his large intestine, but there was, the couple was told, a 70 to 85 percent chance he wouldn't have a recurrence.

Karolyn, a lawyer, took a leave of absence from her job to nurse Jerry, a consultant, through his recovery. They spent those two months planning their wedding, deciding eventually to ask guests to donate to PMP Research Foundation, an organization they helped establish, in lieu of gifts. And on a perfect August day last year, they wed, both of their voices cracking when it came time to utter the words "in sickness and in health."

They had four months as happy newlyweds before it came again, like deja vu. Just before the holidays, something showed up on Jerry's scan. Another major surgery after New Year's was scheduled, and this time they found more tumors and evidence that the cancer was becoming more aggressive.

Jerry's recovery from surgery was slow and incomplete and needed to be followed by six months of chemotherapy. The 35-year-old finished his last treatment earlier this month, and this weekend the couple are celebrating their one-year anniversary in Hawaii. But they'll return to the new existence to which they've grown accustomed -- another tumor has been found and they'll have to decide with their doctors how best to proceed.

It isn't the way either had dreamed their first year of marriage would unfold, but Karolyn says that against even these odds, they're still having fun. Every day, even the worst ones, Jerry makes her laugh out loud. And this punishing process, in all its savagery, has produced one positive side effect: time together. Intense time, much of it, crying or writhing, but also time to sit on the couch with the dog, to eat breakfast together, to enjoy their neighborhood and their families on good days, and to talk and care for each other on bad ones.

It's the time that's taught them, they both say, what it means to really love. So they'll take comfort in it.

"Knowing that that awful thing is out there hovering over you, it just makes you say, 'Well, we're just going to be together as much as possible and enjoy as much as we can,' " Karolyn says. "That's all you can do."

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