Love in the time of corona — and cancer
On June 20, 2020, Stacy Wilmoth and Mike Koleszar exchanged marriage vows during an intimate ceremony in the Toro Park backyard of a family friend. The wedding had been postponed once because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that was far from the biggest obstacle getting to this day.
Three-and-a-half years earlier, Wilmoth was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that progresses rapidly. Intensive treatment and rehabilitation followed — 89 days in a hospital in one stretch, followed by six weeks in a rehabilitation center, and then a 100-day hospital stay for a stem cell transplant.
Wilmoth was ready to go home, but not to return to work. Her compromised immune system meant she couldn’t go back to her job as an elementary school special education teacher. So she found a new way to use her skills, teaching English online to children in China.
Single and 40, she also began to think about her personal life. And that’s where she saw a huge hurdle: Could someone who had cancer find love?
“My biggest fear in starting to date was that I didn’t want to make somebody a widower,” Wilmoth says. “Did I dare let someone get close to me when I couldn’t know if I’d get sick again?”
She shared her feelings in a Cancer Wellness Support Group at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, led by Mary Welschmeyer, a nurse and licensed marriage and family therapist. And what she heard, from Welschmeyer and the other survivors, shifted her perspective. Her fears were valid, she recognized, but they shouldn’t keep her from letting someone love her.
"Survivors wonder whether a partner or potential partner can handle this, how someone would handle it if the disease recurred. It’s easy to slip into doubt if there are physical and lifestyle changes that could infringe upon a relationship."
— Mary Welschmeyer, therapist and Community Hospital support group leader
“Stacy is not the first person who’s thought ‘Am I loveable now that I have had a life-threatening diagnosis?’ ” says Welschmeyer, who has led support groups at Community Hospital for more than 27 years. “Survivors wonder whether a partner or potential partner can handle this, how someone would handle it if the disease recurred. It’s easy to slip into doubt if there are physical and lifestyle changes that could infringe upon a relationship.”
But cancer, Welschmeyer emphasizes, is only part of the person; the person has a rich history – and future – that is not about cancer.
“In our support groups, I facilitate discussions to help remind participants of who they are beyond cancer,” she says. “Cancer survivors are in the process of reinventing themselves, reevaluating their priorities and finding meaning in the beauty of each new day. Typically, there is an increased awareness of one’s mortality and worthiness for a loving relationship.”
So, a year after her treatment and her support group experience, Wilmoth joined an online dating site — and she made a match, with Mike Koleszar. During their third date, before either of them got too invested, Wilmoth shared the story of her cancer journey.
“I was so afraid to tell him,” she says. “Would he hear ‘cancer’ and say he couldn’t do this?”
Koleszar was unfazed, almost seeming to dismiss it. Wilmoth was relieved, but she also worried:
“Did he really understand what I was telling him, what I’d gone through, what could happen?”
So she took him on an unusual “date,” a blood cancers conference in San Francisco, “so he could hear more about what I’d been through and what it could mean.”
He remained undaunted; and a year and a day after their first date, Koleszar took Wilmoth hiking at Point Lobos, where he asked her to marry him.
They set a date: April 6, 2020. When the day came, they were sheltering in place instead of walking down the aisle. They regrouped and rescheduled for June 20.
“Our venue was still closed, and certainly coronavirus was still going on,” Wilmoth says, “so it wasn’t the big wedding we’d planned on. My mom’s friend opened up her beautiful backyard in Toro Park to my family, my three bridesmaids, and my flower girl.
“If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t change anything, actually. It was a lot more intimate and less stressful than it might have been had we had the opportunity to do the big wedding.
We’re really happy; we had a great time. Someday we’ll go on that honeymoon, maybe to Cabo San Lucas or Hawaii. Either way, we’ll have a wonderful time celebrating life and our marriage.”
Montage Health cancer support groups
Community Hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Center now offers cancer-support classes and groups online, including a cancer survivorship series and Cancer Journey.
Cancer-support classes and support groups are made possible thanks to funding from Montage Health Foundation.