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Love on loan: Cancer patients find romance

TORONTO – It can be funny in a romantic comedy between a man and a "mutant."

After weeks of flirting online, Patrick Bardos is on his way to meet Anne Marie Cerato for their first date at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. He texted the Cerato to notify him that he was only a few blocks away from the tram that crawled through rush hour traffic. Cerato said he had just passed the same intersection. "Do you wear blue shoes?" He asked.

Bardos looked down at the blue sneakers, then went up to look for Cerato among the passengers. He felt a knock on his shoulder. Bardos turned around, and there was Cerato, just like the photo on his date profile – long black hair and sharp brown eyes by angle glasses. Even better, unlike many of his date friends, he is taller than him.

"You're short," said Bardos. "But I'm also short. And that's not what I meant."

Bardos must have said something to redeem himself, because both of them kept talking until the coffee shop closed. They decided to eat at a nearby restaurant, and once again closed the house. It was then that Bardos realized that he was late for his own birthday celebration, so he hurried back to his apartment to attend upset party guests, who spent the night listening to him about the woman he had just met.

Separah Cerato, who was then 33 years old, with Bardos, he knew he had no time to waste a dead-end relationship. So on their second date, he decided to drop a "bomb."

Knowing that Bardos is a fan of comic books, Cerato tried to soften the blow by attracting the sensitivity of his superhero. "I'm not an alien," he said, "but I'm a mutant."

Disappointing Bardos, Cerato admitted that he was not a member of X-Men. However, he has been exposed to a fair share of radiation in treating lung forms that are driven by genetic mutations.

After two years in remission, Cerato recently discovered that the cancer had spread, and most likely, he would not live in five years.

This was the chance for Bardos to run into the hills, said Cerato. Bardos took a moment to consider the dilemma: How can someone fall in love knowing that a loss will happen soon?

When facing a disease with live or dead bets, heart problems may seem like a secondary problem. But cancer can function as a "litmus test" for a relationship – and many fail, Dr. Robert Rutledge, Halifax radiation oncologist.

He said it was not unusual for people to break ties, even marriage, with a partner rather than face the prospect of losing a loved one because of cancer, and directly, facing their own death.

But while some couples fainted under the pressure of the disease, Rutledge said, for others, it could increase emotional connection. People who stand next to their partners when late seem close tend to be people who are commensurate with the time of the remaining patients, he said.

Sitting opposite the "mutant" that made him fall in love, Bardos decided to become such a partner for Cerato.

It happened in the fall of 2011. Seven years later, Bardos and Cerato married, owned a house, traveled the world and even celebrated their "25th birthday," adjusting their romantic milestones for love in a short time.

Before he met Cerato, Bardos said he would hesitate between contemplating the past, and worry about the future. Now, Bardos says he can immerse himself at that moment, so he can spend it with him.

"He made me a better person, very fast, only by being himself," he said.

At the age of 40, Cerato said he had opposed survival statistics thanks to the latest developments in targeted gene therapy. But knowing his time was limited, he was forced to decide what he could live without life and who could not live.

"I feel, in a certain way, this is a gift that I realized at the age of 30 years and not 60 years."

For Morgan McNeely in Edmonton, this realization happened a month before he turned 25 when he found out he had terminal stage colon cancer.

After being diagnosed in 2015, McNeely found himself without his studies, scientific research and restaurant work, and briefly some of the relationships he thought he could rely on.

He suddenly had a lot of free time in his hands, so he and a friend decided to entertain themselves by swiping Tinder.

McNeely rejected a number of propositions, including one lothario who offered to help him cross out items from his "sexual bucket list".

He was clearly not looking for love – the last man he dated was separated because of his "cancer drama" – but one of his Tinder matches proved to be persistent, and they started dating.

Because he lost so much, McNeely was afraid to let him off guard. But he told him, "I see you go beyond cancer." And soon, he helped McNeely see it too.

"I feel lucky every day, because of him," he said. "I'm not happy with cancer, but I'm still grateful for what he brought to me."

Even so, McNeely said the disease can complicate a relationship. When he and his girlfriend looked after cats, McNeely said they had to consider whether he could take care of pets without him. When they discussed the prospect of marriage, he was worried about whether the debt related to his illness would be transferred to him after he died.

This is the case for many end-stage cancer patients: Their biggest concern is not in their own deaths, but in the impact on the people they love they leave behind.

Julie Easley is too familiar with this tension, not only as a social scientist whose research has focused on young people with cancer, but as survivors who have suffered loss of themselves.

When Easley met Randy Cable at a bar in Fredericton in 2004, he felt a jolt of instant recognition. At the age of 28, Easley's life was recently handed over to him after defeating stage-2 Hodgkin's lymphoma. Cable, who was 29 years old, had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was told he had three months to live – that day, the hour was up.

Since then, love is on loan.

Easley knows that isolation can come with fighting cancer. He was conducting research at the hospital where Cable was being cared for, so he began visiting him after work.

One night, Cable was too afraid to fall asleep, after being told that he could have a heart attack at any time. Easley offered to stay overnight to monitor his breathing. He crawled to the bed with him and put his hand on his chest, felt it rise and fall as they both fell asleep. After that, he sleeps more often than not, holding hands all night.

Sometimes, it feels like a "normal" partner. To entertain themselves, they will pretend the reflection on the TV screen reveals another room in their imaginary apartment.

"There is something about seeing the strength of character and the beauty of the human spirit when you are stripped to your most vulnerable condition," he said. "I fell in love with it."

Easley said it took a while for Cable to realize that he was more than "the girl who was sleeping with him." When Easley first told the Cable that he loved her, he fell silent. He had told his mother that his biggest regret was that he had never fallen in love, according to Easley, but he had proven he was wrong. "I love you too," he said, his eyes filled with tears.

In the fall of 2005, a little more than a year after they met, it became clear that the end of time was near. Cable's friends and relatives gathered around his bed, and he asked Easley to ride with him. This time, instead of hugging him, he carried him when he died at the age of 31.

Thirteen years later, Easley continued to respect Cable's memory through his work in the young adult cancer community, and felt grateful for the memories he gave him.

"If you really want to know the value of life, you spend time with someone who is struggling for each memo," Easley said. "I know it will end. The part I don't know is the unexpected beauty that happened inside it."

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