On August 21st, 2017, most people on the West Coast of the US were outside witnessing a total solar eclipse. Even in San Diego, CA where the eclipse was only expected to be partial, everyone was outside with special eyewear to observe this rare phenomenon. That is, everyone except for Chris and me. Instead, we watched the event on the news from a small television screen inside Scripps Green Hospital. The eclipse should have been the most memorable part of that day for me, but what I actually remember is that August 21st, 2017 was the day Chris started chemo.
Chris and I met in September of 2016 when we entered graduate school together in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of UC San Diego. Chris is an inorganic chemist and I am an organic chemist, only one of the many ways we would find ourselves to be opposites. But there was immediately an attraction between us that made us quick friends, and eventually, more than friends. By the summer of our first year, we had established an on-again-off-again sort of relationship. But in June 2017, Chris found a lump on his testicle that was painful and getting bigger. He came to me scared and uncertain. At the end of the month, he had surgery to remove the entire organ and I did my best to take care of him while he recovered.
But the cancer had already spread. It was in the lymph nodes in his back. Surgery was not advisable. Chris would have to undergo chemotherapy.
Of the cancers you can get, testicular cancer has one of the best prognoses due to a very effective drug called cisplatin. Cisplatin is a small molecule that is primarily composed of platinum by weight. The molecule works by interfering with DNA replication. DNA is what tells our cells how to be cells. It’s a molecule composed of two long strands that bind to each other through matching base pairs. Think of complementary base pairs like teeth in a zipper. Cisplatin gets in the way of that zipper and prevents DNA base pairs from binding to each other. This effectively kills any replicating cells in the body—that’s great for killing cancer because it replicates quickly compared to most healthy cells. But there are other cells in our bodies that also replicate quickly like hair cells, skin cells, and the membranes that coat our mouths and stomachs. Those get killed, too.
Cisplatin is an amazing treatment that saves lives, but not before making them miserable.
I did my best to be supportive of Chris as he lost his hair, developed ulcers in his mouth, and lost all his energy. I took him to chemo, I brought over food, I tried to listen. But just like the cisplatin gets between complimentary base pairs in DNA, the chemo was preventing Chris and I from communicating. Things that I thought were helping were actually making things worse. But Chris didn’t know how to ask for what he needed and I didn’t know how to take care of someone who was hurt by every touch. By week nine of his treatment, we couldn’t take it anymore. We broke up. It’s not what either of us really wanted, but our relationship had grown too quickly. We had put too much pressure on each other to be something that we were not. Whatever good we could have been, it wasn’t our time. And the cisplatin made sure of that.
Thankfully, Chris is now in remission. His hair has grown back and he’s making an effort to rebuild the life that cancer tore apart. But we’ve gone our separate ways, and that’s probably for the best. It was a hard lesson to learn, that despite one’s best efforts, communication between people who care about each other can fall apart. But I think we both grew from the experience. And maybe the cisplatin made sure of that, too.