Guest Editorials

Navigating university married to a seahorse

by Parham Kermani

Born to a first-generation family from Iran as the eldest son, I had high expectations set for me. By the first grade, my parents already had my life planned out for me, as stated in a letter they wrote to me in the first grade that was put in a time capsule, which I was not to read until graduation day of my senior year.

The letter read in broken English, but the message was clear: “We want you to be an athlete, on the honor roll, who will be the first to graduate college in our family and become a doctor. Afterward, you will marry a beautiful Persian woman and give us many grandbabies.”

When I came out of the closet in 2007, I was disowned. I dropped out of college and began my journey on the grueling path to adulthood with nothing to my name at 19 years old.

A decade passed by, and after years of heartbreak, lost friendships, and a struggle with addiction, I had given up on the “American dream.” Content with being alone, it was just my dog Jasper and me against the world.

My life changed when I met a man in December 2017. Having met on Tinder, a dating app I used to pass the time meeting other flawed individuals such as myself, I had no expectations. However, our first date eventually led to several more dates, and one year later, we were married.

He is four years younger than me, but his wisdom and thirst for life extended far beyond mine. This was due to his mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year prior to our first date. The breast cancer she developed was caused by a rare gene mutation known as CDH1.

According to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the CDH1 gene mutation is passed down through families and increases the risk for HLBC — Hereditary Lobular Breast Cancer — or HDGC — Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer. The risk for this cancer is 7-8 in 10 people with the gene mutation, with an average age of 37 years old for stomach cancer and 53 years old for breast cancer.

His mother’s diagnosis of this aggressive type of cancer led him to get gene-tested, and he tested positive for the CDH1 gene mutation. Diffuse stomach cancer is hard to detect as it grows in the lining of the stomach where scans can’t see it. Due to this, my spouse would undergo yearly endoscopies; his doctor would scrape layers of his stomach lining and perform tests looking for cancer cells.

Watching his mother battle cancer, coupled with the knowledge that he too may face the same fate, my spouse developed an appreciation for the life that he passed down to me and my cold-withered heart.
With a newfound appreciation for life, in 2019, I decided to go back to college and finish what I started over a decade prior. I was doing it for me this time and not because of expectations. As a Weber State alumnus, my spouse naturally led me to start my academic career at Weber State University.

Due to the pandemic, I could only take online classes during my first semester at Weber State, but I was enthusiastic and worked hard. I discovered how much easier school is when you are in your 30s, wanting to learn rather than being forced to be there because society tells us that is what you do after high school.

My enthusiasm was short-lived; it ended in October 2020 after my spouse’s endoscopy test results came back positive for stomach cancer. A friend once asked me, “Why were you surprised when you knew he was at high risk for cancer?”

People do many things knowing the risks, but no one actually believes it will happen to them. One lesson I hope you take from reading this opinion piece is the naiveté in the concept that “it will never happen to me.” Always be prepared for the worst outcome, but never lose faith in the best result.

In the days following my spouse’s diagnosis, I grieved for him, not knowing that what I was really grieving for was myself. The thoughts in my head selfishly shouted, “How could this happen to me?” or “I finally meet the love of my life, and of course, he gets cancer.” These thoughts don’t last long; you mature rather quickly when the only option given to you and your spouse by a team of surgeons and the oncologist is to either live without a stomach or die from stomach cancer.

My spouse transformed into a metaphorical “seahorse.” The term seahorse is used by many people who have received a total gastrectomy. A seahorse has no stomach and must eat constantly to obtain sufficient nutrition. This is similar to what my spouse has to do for the rest of his life.

Knowing what I know now, It is acceptable to grieve for your spouse and for yourself because their cancer journey becomes your journey. Your life changes as much as theirs, and sacrifice is a term you will become accustomed to.

Though I am a first-generation student who also happens to be LGBTQ, I had to take semesters off. Due to the financial restraints of his continued long-term care, I was forced to step down to part-time student. That made me ineligible for scholarships, as those are afforded only to full-time students. To complete my degree in the same amount of time, I would have as a full-time student, I took classes every summer semester I have been at Weber.

Shortly after the first surgery, we found ourselves back at the hospital twice in 2021 for a combined total of sixteen weeks due to complications. One of which caused him to go into septic shock and a ventilator because he almost died. You will never feel more helpless and insignificant in the face of death. Watching the person you plan on spending your life with pass away, along with all the plans and dreams you had together, all hanging on the actions and decisions of the medical team who is ordering you to leave the room.

I would like to say I never take anything for granted after an experience like that, but I’m sure I still do, except I know it is less often. Something as simple as eating when you are hungry is an afterthought for most, while I have to remind myself to eat despite his protests that “it is okay.” So much of what we do involves food; it is almost impossible to avoid it entirely. Dates, going out with friends, holidays, birthdays and a visit to your parent’s house all involve food, and I never realized it until I tried to make plans not involving food for his sake. Most who undergo a total gastrectomy can eat after a year post-surgery. Due to his many complications, three years post-opt, he is not there yet and may never be.

At the beginning of 2023, overwhelmed by the situation, the current state of the world, and exhaustion, I decided to drop out of school. Our health insurance doesn’t cover the costs, and student loans were piling up. To my surprise, an email was waiting for me from the scholarships department. I was awarded the Catapult Scholarship. Despite being a part-time student, the scholarship, according to Weber’s website, is “intended to provide an energetic, upward burst of momentum for students who are nearing graduation but without the means to continue.”

Having my last three semesters of school paid for, I continued to push even though I had decided to give up. I am now only a few weeks away from something I didn’t see happening for myself just five years ago. Both my parents are now back in my life, and while they would have preferred I graduated before I was 25, they couldn’t be more excited to see me be the first to graduate in our family, even at 35. I’m grateful to the professors who understood my situation and pushed me to continue. The advisors who refused to let me quit when I was at my lowest point, and my supportive spouse who still works eight-hour days despite the fact it makes him so exhausted that he gets sick every day, just so that I could have something that would make me proud of myself, something to help me believe in myself again.

Take advantage of every opportunity, even in the face of adversity, and keep pushing forward when in doubt; it is okay if you don’t meet someone else’s expectations. Sometimes, the right path is taking the long way around rather than the short one. Getting your degree is only part of the journey; the other part is how you do it, the lessons you learn, and the relationships you forge along the way.

Per Kermani is a columnist at The Signpost at Weber State University, where this column first ran and is used with permission.

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