A Fargo, North Dakota Couple Got Engaged then Both Were Diagnosed with Cancer; How to Navigate Life’s Unfortunate Curveballs

Published Oct 11, 2021

Marisa Sullivan

In Sickness and in Health

  • Shauna Erickson and Abdallah Abou Zahr from Fargo, North Dakota, initially met online, then wound up marrying; Little did they know that they would both wind up being diagnosed with cancer.
  • Erickson was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Zahr was diagnosed with sarcoma.
  • The weight of a cancer diagnosis is tough, especially when you’re planning your life with someone. A licensed psychologist suggests tips for coping with a diagnosis: Breathing and relaxation techniques, along with prioritizing things that you do have some control over, like advocating for your health with your medical team.

Shauna Erickson and Abdallah Abou Zahr from Fargo, North Dakota, initially met online, as many couples do these days. Erickson is a child therapist and Zahr is an oncologist.

“There was this magnetism I could not put my finger on,” Erickson told a local news outlet, explaining that the pair were opposites. “We we very yin-yang in balancing.”

Zahr felt a similar attraction. “I felt like I could open directly to her, and I am so glad she did not bail out on me after the first date,” he said.

They wound up getting engaged and talked about starting a family.

“Since we got engaged I was on cloud 9,” Erickson said. “I felt like 2021 was going to be the best year of my life, planning for pregnancy and had already made plans to get my IUD out, I had zero symptoms.”

Then, the future Mrs. Zahr was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Well that was a rollercoaster,” Erickson wrote on her Facebook page in March. “Monday: found out I have breast cancer. Tuesday: asked the love of my life to marry me 2 months early. Wednesday: got confirmation of stage 2 cancer and surgery consult. Friday: PET & MRI showing no additional cancers … Saturday: surprise all of my bridal shower guests with our WEDDING Tomorrow.”

“So, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, people were caught so off guard,” Erickson shared. “People looked at me with these sad, sad eyes like, ‘Is she going to be OK, will there even be a full wedding,’ and to have it be such a bang of happiness and positivity was a real boost to enter into my treatment then.”

The couple pushed forward and continued with their nuptials.

“It forced me to face my own mortality I guess, and more because of the way I think,” Zahr said. “I am more of a pessimistic person than optimistic.”

It’s Not a Death Sentence: Changing the Way We Think About Cancer

Erickson went through chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Then, Zahr was diagnosed with sarcoma, which starts in the bones or soft tissue. He is currently in treatment.

Related: Nursing Student Assumes Leg Lump Is A Blood Clot Only To Learn She Has Stage III Synovial Sarcoma; Symptoms of Sarcoma

“I have had many nights where I wonder what is going to happen,” Erickson expressed.

After chemotherapy and radiation, Zahr is set to have surgery to remove the mass in his leg.

“There were periods of pity and anger that led me to reach out to professional supports and interventions to reground myself in feeling even flashes of hope again,” Erickson said. “Finding hope in the things I can have certainty for, or that are still on the horizon, despite there being a different path of taking there.”

The Emotional Weight of a Cancer Diagnosis

Your cancer can take over every part of your life, including your identity. A licensed psychologist shares tips on how to remain calm and carry on.

“When that takes precedence, all the other things start to fall away,” Dr. Mona Robbins, a licensed psychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, tells SurvivorNet. “In my work with patients, I want to make sure that they recognize who they are as they’re going through treatment.”

Related: Do You Have a Question About Mental Health & Cancer—A New Column From SurvivorNet with Dr. Marianna Strongin

If stress is becoming too oppressive, you can try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (where you tense and then relax each muscle group in your body), and guided imagery (where you picture yourself in a setting such as a beach that makes you feel calm). “Something else that’s helpful is the idea of distraction, where perhaps a person listens to music or does something that takes their mind away,” Dr. Robbins suggests.

Look for the parts of your life where you still have control, such as advocating for yourself with your medical team. Try to let go of things you can’t control. Look for the positive aspects of your life, rather than focusing solely on the negative, Dr. Robbins suggests.

You might find as you move through your cancer journey that you’re far stronger than you’d ever imagined, and you have more control over the situation than you thought you did. “Just the way you think can affect your energy, your mood, your desire, and your motivation. There’s this connection with the mind and the body that if we adjust the way that we think, we can really help our bodies to heal,” Dr. Robbins says.

Mind Over Cancer 

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