Coronavirus, terminal cancer and a Zoom wedding this Sunday: 'We can't put off joy'
Family and friends will dial in from around the world as the bride and groom go ahead with their nuptials -- cancer and COVID-19 be damned.
Leslie KatzFormer Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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On Sunday afternoon, Jenessa Schwartz and Trevor Davis will get married in their Northern California backyard. It will be a small affair -- just the two of them, Schwartz's dad and her two young children. And 50-plus guests dialing in via Zoom.
Schwartz and Davis won't be the first couple to hold a Zoom wedding during these bizarre, locked-down times -- there are even online tutorials for planning a virtual wedding, including how to ensure "Zoombombers" can't crash the fun. But a particular urgency drove their decision to exchange virtual vows rather than postpone their nuptials, as many others are doing. The bride is simultaneously battling terminal colorectal cancer and navigating the coronavirus crisis as someone with a compromised immune system.
"It's going to sound trite and a little cliche, but I've cultivated this seize-the-day attitude," Schwartz says. "We decided we can't put off joy."
It's an outlook best summed up by the title of a post on the blog where Schwartz, 37, chronicles her three-year cancer journey: "Let's carpe this MF diem."
If the Zoom wedding attendees lean in to their screens, they'll see garlands twisting around a trellis in the couple's San Jose yard. And they'll notice a distinctive color theme for the occasion -- blue, for colon cancer awareness.
The bride will wear bright blue boots. The groom will sport a blue blazer. A blue dress covered with stars will offset 9-year-old Ramona's bright red hair, and the equally flame-haired Solly, 7, will look dapper in a blue button-down shirt. Even Rocky the pitbull mix will wear a blue bowtie, homemade by Ramona.
"While it certainly isn't going to look the way we expected it to, I'm thrilled that it's going to happen," Davis says. "All I can hope for is that it really does."
Schwartz and Davis, 32, met when they were teaching at the same school -- she in language arts, he in physics. They started as close friends. Their friendship turned into romantic love shortly after Schwartz got shattering news in March 2017: She had stage four colon cancer, meaning it had metastasized beyond its original site. Doctors gave her a prognosis of one to two years, a projection she's thankfully outlived.
The physical and emotional vagaries of life with cancer have been difficult for both of them. But falling more deeply in love has been easy.
"I've never been a very outgoing or chatty person, but with Ness it's always been easy for me to share myself," Davis says. "When I talk to her, she listens. Even more importantly than that, she gets me in a way that no one else ever has. People sometimes talk about finding their person. Jenessa has been mine since the moment I met her."
Colon cancer typically affects older adults, though it can strike at any age. Schwartz consulted a doctor after spotting blood in her stool. She had long experienced irregular bowel habits, fatigue, nausea and anemia, but attributed the symptoms to her pregnancies -- in addition to her two kids, she carried twins as a surrogate for a gay couple. She figured she also might just be tired from the rigors of motherhood.
Then, the diagnosis that changed everything: incurable cancer.
Her disease is, however, treatable. Treatments have involved an eight-hour surgery to remove part of her colon and liver, plus her appendix, gallbladder, uterus, ovaries and even more of her insides. She has gone through dozens of rounds of grueling chemotherapy and endured lengthy hospitalizations. She shares all aspects of the experience on her blog, titled My Colon Cancer: Semicolon Not Full Stop. "When life gives you cancer, make a punctuation pun," she jokes.
Her posts are searingly honest, frequently funny and full of determination and gratitude. Often, even in her darkest moments, she'll include a "silver lining roll call."
"My belly now looks like I've been in a wicked knife fight, which is kickass," she wrote after her surgery. And, of her teaching: "Middle school students are so well-behaved after you tell them you have cancer."
Through it all, Davis has stood by her side. He's stayed with her every night she's been in the hospital and accompanied her to almost every chemotherapy treatment. After chemo infusions, he tucks her into bed and brings her whatever she needs.
"His support has been nothing short of Herculean," Schwartz says.
In June 2018, Schwartz got the remarkable news that her scans showed no signs of cancer. A year later, it returned. Cancer treatment is never easy, but cancer treatment amid the COVID-19 pandemic is even more complex.
Hospitals have enacted restrictions on visitors, meaning less in-person support during chemo appointments. Some cancer surgeries are being postponed or canceled, as are scans. Schwartz was scheduled for a routine PET scan next week to gauge the efficiency of her current round of chemo, but it's been delayed until next month.
"That may not sound like a big deal, but if my disease has progressed, that means I will have endured unnecessary and ineffectual chemotherapy and I'll be weeks behind a new treatment plan," she says.
COVID-19 is its own threat -- to the healthy, yes, but especially to those considered high-risk, including the elderly and people with underlying problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. The rate of death for cancer patients in China who tested positive for coronavirus was 7.6%, compared with the overall death rate of 3.8% for those infected, according to a report from the World Health Organization-China joint mission.
While Schwartz and Davis' upcoming wedding stands as a symbol of defiance in the face of a life drastically altered, there are also realistic considerations.
"The darker side of it is that now, more than ever, it's important to have our affairs in order," Schwartz says. "We wanted to make sure we had a legal marriage and all of the benefits that come with that."
But for now, the couple is looking forward to their special Sunday, a day they set for the celebration before coronavirus upended the world. A day that had already rooted itself in their minds as their future anniversary -- whatever that future may look like.
"When you have a wedding date, the day feels important somehow," Schwartz says. "We decided that that's our wedding date, that it's going to remain our wedding date."
That day, May 3, 2020, will be a day of love, hope, family and friends. And bright blue.
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