Facing Stage IV Together: An Interview With Kiara and Kai

Insight Articles
June 25, 2014
By: 
Pamela Grossman, for LBBC

Published in the Summer 2014 issue of LBBC's Newsletter, Insight

What happens when you’re diagnosed with stage III breast cancerinfo-icon as a 25-year-old doctoral student—and then with a stageinfo-icon IV recurrenceinfo-icon just over 2 years later? Kiara Kharpertian, now 29, of Brighton, Massachusetts, decided life would go on.

The tumors that spread to her liver, lungs and bones responded well to treatment and, before long, Kiara began dating someone special. “We met last summer,” she says of Kai Stewart, 25, a route-setter at a climbing gym in Watertown. “Then when I got clean scans in October, my roommates and I threw a giant party, and Kai came. We were inseparable from there—just 6 weeks after, I learned I had brain mets.”

The couple spoke about facing stage IV cancer together— through good communication, laughter, self-care and determined rock climbing.

Kiara

I met Kai when I started climbing at the climbing gym where he was working.

Kai

I hear people complaining a lot about how they can’t do a climb for some reason. But Kiara was successfully doing them despite muscle loss from her mastectomyinfo-icon. I was pretty impressed.

Pam

Yours is a new relationship. How has it changed or stayed the same as you’ve dealt with the issues of cancer?

Kiara

I think the relationship progressed much more quickly than it otherwise would have. Being sick this way makes everything seem more immediate.

Kai

Everything between us is very straightforward. I can say, “This is how I feel” or “This is what I think about things.” She’s very easyto date! [laughs]

Kiara

This is an unusual situation, and it can be hard. I can only help Kai manage it if I know how he’s honestly doing. So I listen to him and think about what I can do to help him based on what he needs,not on how I would react.

Kai

If something’s bothering her or she doesn’t feel well, I expect her to tell me. I don’t want her to say she’s feeling OK just to make me feel good. I’d hold it against her if she didn’t tell me the truth!

Kiara

He’s really good about that, which is great because I can never hide anything anyway!

When we’d been dating for 2 weeks, Kai looked at me very seriously and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But then immediately he said, “But I want to—can you tell me how?” And I said, “OK, yeah! I think this will work!” [laughs] It makes things much easier if you have someone you can admit your fears to. They become a lot less scary and more manageable.

I’m figuring it all out as I go. There’s no handbook that says “Here’s how you can have stage IV cancer with grace and poise.”

Kai

She could probably write that book, actually.

Pam

Kai, how do you balance your needs against the situation Kiara’s in? She’s the one receiving treatment, but you’re still allowed to be human.

Kai

Sure. [pause] Kiara’s really good at asking me if I need time or space. I really like the outdoors, climbing and working out in general—it’s rewarding, fun and very meditative. So I try to make sure I fit in time for that. Or—I like reading about physics. I’ll take 20 minutes before we go to bed to surf the Internet and look at things I’m interested in but she isn’t. I take time here and there to do things just for me.

Kiara

And it’s important to me he does. If he’s not feeling stable and like he’s getting his needs met, then he’s no use to me!

Pam

Kiara, can you speak about any desire to protect Kai or others? You don’t want to hide anything, but sometimes we keep the people closest to us in the dark because we don’t want to worry them.

Kiara

I feel very protective of Kai. I get nervous sometimes that whatever is coming next will be too hard and too much for him. I want to keep him from having to deal with it, but that never lasts for very long. Emotionally, I want to protect him, but intellectually I know that’s not how it works.

Also, I think it’s important to stay grounded in things we like to do—having things in our lives that are not related to cancer. It’s not protecting ourselves, but creating a buffer between us and cancer. That helps a lot.

Pam

Continuing to be who you are—a human being with a real life and interests.

Kiara

Right. Cancer is a disease. It’s not me as a person.

Pam

And how do you make room for lightness or normalcy amid ongoing treatment? I know you climb together.

Kiara

I have a hard time staying serious for long. I grew up in a household where we thought that life’s too hard to be serious about it. This is too frightening when we look it straight in the eye all the time, so we joke about everything.

I think it’s really important to approach cancer with a good, healthy, obnoxiously relentless sense of humor. Cancer’s scary and overwhelming, something no one should ever have to deal with. But if it’s gonna be there, we might as well laugh.

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