Slow steps: guidance counselor Challis Michael on finding hope through a loved one’s cancer battle


Guidance counselor Challis Michael’s husband was diagnosed with cancer two years after they wed. Photo courtesy of Challis Michael.

Written by Challis Michael

Cancer. Cancer? CANCER.  I had heard the word, said the word and discussed the word, but until January of 2014 I had never lived the word.  My life until that point had been pretty idyllic and I knew it.  I grew up in San Diego, moved to Arizona for college, then London after college for about three years and after London, a year in Australia.  When I moved to the Bay Area at the age of 27, I had been living out of the country for almost four years and loved every minute.  I decided to go to grad school and I was ready to settle down.  Finding my husband wasn’t quite as easy as I had thought it would be, but he was more than worth the wait.  At 35 I was married, working in a career I love and excited about everything. We had our plan, and we had started our lives together.

Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to me.  And it wasn’t supposed to happen to anyone I love. And it especially wasn’t supposed to happen to my amazing husband less than two years after we’d been married.  I was in total disbelief when the doctor told us.  My husband had been in for some tests, and the doctor had expected to find nothing.  On the drive home from the testing, his doctor called and told him to turn around.  Come back.  Now.  Not tomorrow.  Now.  Cancel your plans. Cancel your work.  Come back immediately.  No, we can’t talk about this on the phone.  I need to see you now.  It was obvious that it wasn’t good news, but we were not prepared for what was to come.

Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to me.  And it wasn’t supposed to happen to anyone I love.

Two weeks later, I was sitting in a staff meeting in the library, when the same doctor (who needs to work on his social skills) left me a voice message.  Expecting it was results, and again, assuming them to be good, I was literally paralyzed when I heard that the cancer had spread throughout his body, and it was not just a hill anymore, but a mountain.  And we had to figure out how to get over it.  And we were short on time.  This felt like a cruel trick.  He didn’t deserve this.  I didn’t deserve this.  It wasn’t fair. In fact at one point, I thought there was no way this could be real, and I almost expected to get results proving it was a mistake.  My happy safe world had been torn apart.  After all the work to find my favorite person, was it really possible I could lose him so soon?  We need more than a lifetime for all we wanted to do.

His first surgery was four days later, and his second three weeks after that. Three rounds of chemo, going five days a week one week, and then one day the next, and then again and again.  Another big surgery.  We survived.  Visitors filtered through, family was abundant and we received more love than we could comprehend.  Food came in by the truckload; we had no idea how many people wanted to help!  Mail started becoming fun.  Letters poured in, cards with well wishes and trinkets of hope. My house was a recovery center, with around-the-clock care provide by friends and family.  The support was a relief one day, and then became suffocating the next.  I struggled between wanting my own space in my house, to wanting it filled with noise, so we could ignore the silence.  I dealt with my emotions on my own time, often breaking down to close friends, never wanting to add more to my husband’s mind than recovery.  Recovery was the most important thing, and in my mind the only option.

And then somewhere in the process, we started with both the good and bad what-if’s.  They kept me up at night. We started talking about some of the bigger things that we had always thought would just figure themselves out.  Do we want to live in the Bay Area or move back to San Diego?  What goals do we have as a couple that we need to start working on now?  What career goals do we have—what family goals? I have always been lucky with things just “working out for me,” but this was different.  We were working things out for our future, because I was determined we would have one together.  Working on goals helped us to feel like we had control.  We could make decisions based on the information we had, and plan for what came next.

More procedures.  In one treatment center, they have a cancer plaque that I took a picture of and used as my screensaver. I cried the first time I read it—I loved it so much.  I even posted it to Instagram. I read it multiple times a day.  

Photo courtesy of Challis Michael.
I cried the first time I read it—I loved it so much. Photo courtesy of Challis Michael.

He got better, he got worse and on and on.  Each day different than before.  We smiled, we laughed, we binge-watched TV before it was a thing. More cards, more love, more food, more hope and more support.  The outpouring was overwhelming.  I had known my family cared and that I had great friends, but the way they just stepped in and did things without my asking was beyond compare.  To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement.  I can honestly say they knew more of what we needed than I did.

We started to heal before he got the all clear, and then he did.  I don’t remember the day, but I remember the trees outside the doctor’s window, and thinking that they had bloomed just for this occasion.  I asked our wonderful doctor to repeat it, and I recorded him so I could listen to the results over and over again. My amazing husband conquered the mountain and was cancer-free. First thing I did was order a new couch and get rid of our old one.  It smelled like the hospital, and had his indentation from spending more than a year lying and sleeping on it. That couch looked like sickness to me, and we had the luxury of now just concentrating on recovery.  More visitors, more love and more support.  Slow steps, and slow walks turned into walks around the block, and then walks to the park.

And then our life started again.  The funny thing is though; it didn’t start where we had left off.  We were different people, with different goals and values.  We had grown up, but not grown apart.  He’s the one with the scars on the outside, but we both carry them on the inside. We had gotten through it together.  Marriage took on a new meaning.  He wasn’t just my wonderful husband any longer.  He had become my complete partner, and we had tackled the mountain together.  And the great thing was, we had already planned out the important stuff, so now we were able to start over, just better and stronger.

Strength can be found even in the darkest times. You are not alone. It may take slow steps first, but one day you will walk and walk far—just as Michael and her husband did. The guidance department is one of the possible sources of support if you ever find yourself struggling in any way. 

Marriage took on a new meaning. He wasn’t just my wonderful husband any longer. He had become my complete partner, and we had tackled the mountain together. Photo courtesy of Challis Michael.