I had driven past the heartbreaking billboards of sick kids with bald heads. I had been asked to donate to the cancer hospital as I paid for my groceries. I had even made hats and blankets for cancer patients as part of community service projects. In theory, I knew cancer was real and that it could happen to anyone. I just always assumed that “anyone” wouldn’t include my family.

After all, we were young and relatively healthy. My husband, Ken, and I were in our 20’s, the prime of our life. We were navigating new careers and buying our first home. Our two-year-old was just learning to form complete sentences, and we considered whether he needed a sibling. Cancer was the furthest thing from our minds. If it invaded our family, we assumed it would come to one of our grandparents in their 80’s and 90’s. Unfortunately, we were wrong.

The dreadful diagnosis came on the drive to pick up our son from daycare. Ken went to a doctor for pesky back pain that prevented him from moving furniture or beating his brother at golf. I figured some extra time at the gym and driving range would be the cure. Ken expected physical therapy to improve his mobility. Neither of us were prepared for that phone call.

“There’s a baseball-sized tumor on your spine and ribs. I will schedule the biopsy. What oncologist should I refer you to?” the doctor asked nervously.

We knew the word he was avoiding.

“Tumor, biopsy, oncologist. What are you saying?” Ken forced him to be direct.

“You have cancer.”

Nothing could prepare us for the moment of a cancer diagnosis. My mind raced through a million thoughts yet was oddly still at the same time. My vision blurred, my head spun, and my stomach tightened. I felt devastated, then numb, then both simultaneously. I discovered that conflicting emotions can co-exist, and that it’s possible to feel everything and nothing all at once.

For weeks, I had to re-confront the reality of cancer each time I woke up. My alarm buzzed, and for two seconds, I assumed life was normal and everyone was healthy. But every morning, a cloud of grief overcame me. Oh yeah, my husband has cancer. I wanted to wrap the blanket tightly over my head and hide from the world. Cancer can’t find people when they stay under their covers, right? But we couldn’t stay. Our day full of doctor’s appointments started early.

The cancer center was full of bald heads, weak bodies, and wheelchairs. Knitted beanies and support group pamphlets lined the tables of the waiting room. Do we really belong here? In the movies, cancer strikes the main character to introduce drama. In stories, horrible circumstances are presented to display great bravery and strength. But we are just normal, everyday people. Could this really be happening to us? Of course, we knew cancer happens in real life, too. But not in OUR lives. I subconsciously assumed it would never be us.

Eventually, we learned to wrap our head around the idea. Ken started chemo, his hair fell out, and everything got real. Cancer did strike our young family. We did belong in oncology appointments, hospital rooms, and chemo pods. We weren’t glamorous movie characters or iconic heroes, but we were forced to be strong. Our hair wasn’t gray and our skin wasn’t wrinkled, but Ken’s life was in danger. We had no reason to expect this would happen to us, yet cancer was our new reality.

Now we are the token “cancer family” to many neighbors and friends. People say they can’t imagine what it would be like. We never imagined it either. People say they wouldn’t be able to handle it. We never had a choice. We used to feel in control. We had stable jobs, loving relationships, and good health. We knew life would bring trials and heartache, but we were oblivious to the possibility of a cancer diagnosis in our twenties.

Now we are ever aware of our vulnerability. We know life can knock us off our feet with one unexpected phone call. We know that everyone around us is susceptible, too. Cancer, like so many of life’s difficulties, strikes unexpectedly and indiscriminately. It could happen to anyone. Life throws surprising curveballs to everyone whether it’s cancer or something else. We try to use this perspective to fuel compassion because we never know who needs help. We never know how a smile or a snide remark could completely alter someone’s day. We aim to be kind because we never know who is facing the worst news of their life.

After all, we never thought it would be our family… until it was.

Julieann Selden

Julieann Selden is a chemistry graduate student and non-profit volunteer. Her husband, Ken, is recently in remission from sarcoma cancer. On her blog, contemplatingcancer.com, she examines the thoughts and emotions of life through the lens of an aggressive cancer diagnosis.