Couple planning wedding, life despite stage 4 cancer diagnosis
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There is cancer in her lungs and in her bones and she has to use a walker to get around, but what Amanda Catano really wants to know is if her visitors have a place to go for the holidays.
"Do you need any water? Drinks or anything?" she asks more than once to those who have come to ask about her story.
She apologizes for the walker.
"Maybe your grandparents have one," she jokes.
A television camera is situated in her living room and a microphone is clipped to her collar.
"I hear the camera adds 10 pounds. That's what I need — a little weight gain."
To say the 32-year-old woman is thin would be an understatement. To say the woman facing stage 4 colon cancer is lovely, charming, funny and warm would also be an understatement.
The first thing her fiancé, Jason Dorais, noticed when he met Catano last year was her sense of humor. Her illness only amplified that and all of the other good things he first saw in her.
"She was always having fun, always upbeat and happy, and I think through this whole process, that has just reaffirmed it," he said. "She's staying upbeat and happy and all the initial things I loved about her are even more now.
"I don't know that it's changed much of anything, but it's strengthened what I'd seen earlier, that she could stay like that through tough times."
The couple got engaged Nov. 10 after they learned about the cancer. Cancer, they said, has a way of making things seem clearer and more urgent. They plan to marry in December.
"I think for us it was that we're just really excited and looking forward to the future and I feel like we have a really bright future together," Catano said. "We don't know how long that is, how many years, but I feel like we can make the most of it and we'll do well."
They met through friends in March 2011 and — Dorais especially hates this part — they started a game of Words with Friends. Within a day or so, he asked for her number using the game.
"I think he was like, 'I know this is kind of lame to do this, but can I get your number?'" she recalled.
They went rock climbing on their first date and have been together since. She said she knew that she wanted to marry him in six months. He recently told her he knew much earlier than that, but held back.
"I guess we'd been thinking about marriage for a while now and I was kind of unsure, as probably any guy would be …," Dorais starts.
"Because he thought I was crazy and anorexic," Catano interjects, referring to the dramatic weight loss and emotional struggles before her diagnosis. "And then I get cancer and that's when he decides."
Catano said she first noticed something was off when she was training for the Ogden Marathon in January and started experiencing frequent incidences of diarrhea. It was abnormal, but she chalked it up to the increased running.
But it persisted, even after she had run the marathon, and she noticed she was more fatigued. When things worsened, she called a doctor. She had searched the Internet about her symptoms, but ruled out colon cancer as a possibility because of her age and lack of family history with the illness.
The initial tests showed nothing, but she was advised to follow up with a gastroenterologist.
"In retrospect, I look back and I really wasn't myself last year," she said. "I feel like I was … something just felt off and that's what drove me to go in and find out what was going on. I just didn't feel healthy, I didn't feel like myself."
She had a colonoscopy on Sept. 11 and it showed a mass. She was told immediately it was most likely cancer. Further tests confirmed this.
"I think it was just a shock," she said. "I'm a really healthy person. I'm active, I eat healthy, I'm fairly happy so it was a huge surprise and a huge shock. It wasn't something I ever anticipated. Cancer doesn't run in my family, so it was a little bit surreal."
Dorais was also blindsided. As a medical resident at University Hospital, he wondered how he hadn't piece it together.
"(It was) not what you expect in a young, healthy girl and … she'd been complaining about these things for the last eight months, six months, so part of it was, 'Why didn't I pay attention and think about this earlier?'" he said. "Cancer is something I see a fair amount at work and it's just like, 'Why couldn't I put that together with someone that I'm so close to?'"
She had an operation to remove part of her colon, her appendix and part of her small bowel. Dorais' medical experience was invaluable in helping her deal with that and ongoing chemotherapy and radiation.
"To me, it was this huge ordeal and something I really struggled with and seeing Jason not make a big deal about it, crack jokes about it … I mean there was a time where he had come over twice a day and change my wound because I just couldn't do it myself," she said. "I couldn't bring myself to pack this open gaping wound, but for him it's what he's been trained to do. I think that's really helped me accept it. Now it's like, fine, no big deal, who cares? I have a poop bag on my waist. No big deal."
Catano said there is still "a little bit of disbelief" about all of it. For the most part, though, she thinks she's doing well.
"I haven't been angry or really asking, 'Why is this happening to me?' so much as it's just kind of what life has dealt me," she said. "I'm trying to just kind of roll with it and do the best I can, I guess."
Remaining upbeat has been key for Catano and she believes her attitude has been an antidote. It was what helped her fiancé most after her diagnosis.
"It was kind of hard, but she's stayed positive and I think that helps a lot — seeing someone stay happy and move forward and that's been the plan so far to just kind of keep going, right?" he said.
"Yes," she affirmed.
"She stays positive and that makes it easier," he said. "It's not great watching it, but that is the silver lining — seeing her happy and seeing her get a little better."
Dorais has always been dependable and reliable and he has continued to be someone she can count on. But all of this has shown her a more sensitive side of him. She jokes that it's been the first time she's seen that he has emotions.
"Sometimes situations like this bring out different sides to people, a great side, but a bad side, too, but I feel like maybe this brought out the best in both of us," she said.
In the past month, Dorais said whatever uncertainty he felt about getting married before has disappeared. She said the same. He asked her friends to help him pick out a ring. Catano has had difficulties walking and doesn't often leave her home, so he wondered how to surprise her.
One Saturday, just after a nap, they started talking about the future that they wanted.
"I just put the ring on and asked her and she was like, 'What? What are you doing? What is going on? This doesn't make sense,'" he recalled.
"I was like, 'What?!' You know, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes," she added.
"It's something I knew that I wanted to do," he explained. "It's something that she saw happening and I want to be able to do that. Again, time may or may not be limited, but if it's something we've always thought about, something we've always seen ourselves doing and it's an easy decision, then why would cancer change that?"
They are ready. And they feel like it adds some normalcy to their lives, being able to plan a wedding and get married — cancer be damned. They're shooting for Dec. 21.
"We're thinking Timpanogos Temple," she said and turned to Dorais, "You still on board with that?"
"Sure," he said.
"A simple luncheon afterwards, something that's just kind of simple. I probably won't have much more energy than for a wedding and a luncheon," Catano said. "We're pretty excited to get married and move on. Any form of normalcy, I just kind of cling on to that, because life hasn't been normal for the last couple months and you're looking for anything to just be normal and just get back to living."
She hopes the wedding will be a celebration, "a holiday" for those closest to them.
Cancer has already changed a lot of things and not all of them have been bad. Catano said she sees her friends, family and loved ones more.
"When your mortality is handed to you, if anything, you realize relationships are really key and important," she said. "I feel like I've been relying pretty heavily on the people in my life. They've really made me happy and not that you should rely on other things or people to make you happy, but that's why you have each other, to kind of help each other out when times are bad. It's been really helpful.
"Catch me next week when I'm day one of chemo and you'll probably get a different story, but I couldn't do this without all those people in my life."
She's also come to realize that attitude really is everything and self-pity is a slippery slope. People matter most and life is full of blessings.
"My sister has been sending me all these inspirational quotes every day and one of them said that cancer is not a death sentence, but a life sentence in that it kind of pushes you to live," she said. "I think it's caused me to really think about what's important and what's worth stressing about and there are so many things in life to be happy for even when you're suffering or in pain. I think, hopefully, in retrospect this will teach me some really good life lessons and I'll be able to live a better life because of what I'm going through now."
Also, insurance is important.
"You got to get it!" she announced, praising her employer, Alianza Academy, and her gratitude for their support. "I just feel like there's so many blessings in spite of the fact that, you know, stage four cancer kind of sucks."
At this point in time, the goal is to be walking by the new year. Better still if she can walk by the time they get married.
"I'm hoping to be able to walk on my wedding day without the use of a walker or a cane," she said.
She feels like she has years still and is optimistic about children. She appears radiant and confident. He is the same.
"I've seen a more emotional side of him and I would have married him without seeing that and hoped for it later, but I knew he had it in him," she said. "You want to know that, that the person you're going to be with for the rest of your life is going to take care of you through thick and thin. And this is pretty thick. He hasn't gone anywhere. He's stuck with me."
The couple's friend, Sam Dickens, chimed in: "They are two of the best people I know."
"Aw, Sam. You don't have to say that," Catano said.
She turned to a reporter, "But did you write that down?"
Catano's family and friends have set up a YouCaring account to help pay for medical expenses at www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/amandacatanosmedicalexpensefundraiser/27013.
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