Sometimes the consequences of her stubbornness could be alarming. About 15 years earlier, Jane started having recurring attacks of excruciating abdominal pain and fever. I worried that she might have diverticulitis or worse. But no matter what I said, I could not convince her to see a doctor. Instead, she called our drugstore to prescribe herself a powerful antibiotic and asked me to pick it up for her. Sometimes this strategy worked, and she would recover after a few days. Other times the first antibiotic didn’t do the trick and she would prescribe herself a second one. During one protracted episode, she missed several weeks of work while she lay in bed, waiting to see if she would get better. She eventually did, and life went on.
I don’t know where Jane’s intense medical phobias came from, but they had dire results. They were, in fact, the direct cause of the misery she was now experiencing.
One Saturday morning about four years before the pulmonary embolism and her unexpected workday collapse at the hospital, I heard Jane calling to me from behind the closed door of our bathroom. I opened it to find a horrific sight. Jane was lying on the tile floor. The caftan she wore on weekends was partially unzipped and over her right shoulder was a blood-soaked towel.
“My god!” I nearly shouted. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m dying,” she said calmly.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, skeptical but concerned about her uncharacteristically dramatic assertion.
“I have breast cancer,” she said.
“Really?” I said, still skeptical. “How do you know?”
Jane didn’t reply. She continued to lie on the floor, looking anywhere but my direction.
I let a minute pass.
“Seriously, hon,” I said in a softer tone. “What’s this about?”
Again, no reply.
“Look,” I said, “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s happening.”
“Fine,” she said, with a note of disgust creeping into her voice. “I have breast cancer that’s spread to my skin. It’s invaded a blood vessel and now I’m bleeding to death.”
“Jesus Christ! Let me see how serious this is,” I said, reaching for the zipper.
“No!” she screamed. “Don’t touch me! I just don’t want to be alone when I die.”
“How do you know you’re dying?” I said. “How do you even know this is breast cancer?”
“Oh, I am and it is.”
“Well, I can’t just let you die here on the floor,” I said, reaching for my phone. “I’m calling 911.”
“No, no, no!” she screamed again. “Don’t you dare. I’ll never forgive you if you do.”
I froze. I was utterly loyal to Jane, but this behavior was insane. We sat in silence for a few more minutes.
“Why don’t you read to me?” she finally said. She’d brought The New York Times into the bathroom. It was lying on the floor next to her, so I picked it up and started reading aloud.
After an hour, Jane still wasn’t dead.
“I think the bleeding stopped,” she said.
“Thank god,” I said. “Now, show me where the blood was coming from.”
“No, no need,” she said flatly. “I’m fine now. Go do whatever it is you were doing when I called you in here. Really, I’m fine. Go on.” When Jane emerged from the bathroom an hour later, she still wouldn’t answer any of my questions. No matter how much I pleaded, she refused to be seen by a doctor and angrily told me never to ask her again. She went about her usual Saturday activities as if nothing had happened.
I was shaken. Did she really have cancer? How could she be sure unless she let a doctor look at it? She might be right … but she might be wrong. How could she possibly know how serious it was? When she told me that she was “dying,” did she say that because of the bleeding, or did she know more than she was letting on?
Everything about her medical condition was unclear. But what was abundantly clear was her desire not to discuss it. I had to decide: Do I use whatever limited leverage I might have to keep confronting her, or do I comply with her wishes by denying that any of this ever happened?
I chose the latter. I spoke to no one.
Barrett Rollins ’74, an oncologist, is chief scientific officer, emeritus, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Linde Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Amherst awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree in 2017 for his clinical research and organizational leadership. This essay is excerpted from his new book In Sickness: A Memoir.
An Interview with Barrett Rollins ’74
By Mary Elizabeth Strunk
Rollins was married for 30 years to fellow oncologist Jane Weeks, a renowned Harvard researcher who studied the benefits, risks and results of cancer treatments. Yet for years, Weeks concealed her own untreated breast cancer—and insisted that Rollins help keep her secret, once he found out. She ultimately collapsed at work in 2012 and died a year later. Rollins’ memoir, In Sickness, examines his guilt at abetting his wife’s deception and her rejection of the medical interventions that she and he understood so well.
I was struggling with what my life with Jane actually meant, what her secrecy meant and what my complicity meant. We, as human beings, understand the world through creating narratives. So I started writing. The frame of this book is a cancer story, but it’s not really a cancer story. It’s a story of a marriage, and the implicit deals that couples make in order to stay together. A lot of these deals are never acknowledged until some stressor appears. In our case, it was a cancer diagnosis. The weirdness was that Jane knew better than almost anybody on the planet the negative consequences of ignoring her cancer. The fact that Jane possessed full knowledge allowed me to justify my complicity. Jane was so brilliant and analytical. I kept imputing rationality to her because she was so rational in all her other domains. Yet she was being utterly irrational.
My single greatest regret is that I couldn’t figure out a way to convince Jane to get medical treatment for her cancer. I’m still struggling with how and why I was unable to do that. One of my rationales was that there are no limits to the obligations we owe those we love. I now believe that there are limits: In the face of behavior that’s clearly self-destructive and contrary to a loved one’s best interest, our obligation is to intervene.
I have mixed feelings about having published the book, because it disclosed Jane’s secrets. Ultimately, I decided there were audiences who would benefit from knowing the truth—especially the family that I shortchanged during my time with Jane. I also figured it would resonate with other people out in the world. From public feedback to the book, I’ve discovered a huge number of people have spouses, parents and relatives who have hidden their cancers for years.
The sum of all that I did for Jane in aggregate was not apparent to me until she died. She wanted to dominate and she wanted to put us in a bubble. I was inclined to go along with that. I remember being frustrated in the moments when I made certain decisions. For example, I felt like I couldn’t have a meaningful relationship with my young daughter [from a previous marriage], because that would make Jane angry. But I didn’t connect that choice with the two dozen other places where I gave in [to Jane’s rules]. There’s something in my psychological makeup that fit Jane’s psychological makeup like a lock and a key. We were, in a really odd way, meant for each other.
People who knew Jane said things like, “We were all too afraid to confront her, but we knew something was going on.” Jane was this conundrum. There was great appreciation for how incredibly smart, skilled and generous she could be. But even those who loved and admired her were also sometimes deeply hurt by her. She was intensely private and driven by motivations people could only guess at. That’s a universality in the book: that people are not just one thing or the other. Those who knew Jane give me a complete pass. Other friends who have read the book, women in particular, have said, “The more I read, the angrier I got.” They were angry at me, and kept asking, “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” They know me from other domains in my life. It’s not that I’m aggressive, but I don’t mind the occasional professional fight. I just wouldn’t fight with Jane.
It’s unclear whether Jane would have lived longer had she gotten treatment, but she definitely would have lived better. Whatever else happened, I gave her exactly what she wanted. We stayed together for 30 years, and I made her last 10 [when her cancer was likely present] as comfortable as I could. Certainly Jane’s last year was tough, but I am happy she was able to die in her own bed. I gave her what she wanted in that respect.
My current life was inconceivable to me before. It’s a relationship with much more give and take than there was with Jane. My daughter loves Lynn, and Lynn and I spend a huge amount of time with each other’s families. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to end up where I am now. And I am also lucky to have lived through what I lived through with Jane.
Mary Elizabeth Strunk lives and writes in Amherst.