Angelo Merendino was 38 years old when he lost his wife, Jennifer, to metastatic breast cancer (MBC). A decade later, there are still moments when the pain of losing her is unbearable.
But Angelo will never forget the love that defined their marriage, even though it was clouded by the disease that ultimately claimed Jen’s life. Angelo and Jen had been married only five months when she was diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer in 2008.
“Like most young couples, we were excited to start our life together. We had our plans and ideas and dreams that we wanted to share together,” Angelo said. “The last thing I thought was that she would have breast cancer. From that point on, life immediately got turned upside down. All the things that I thought I believed in and thought I knew were suddenly challenged.”
After undergoing a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and breast reconstructive surgery, Jen had no signs of breast cancer just after their first wedding anniversary. But two years later, she was diagnosed as metastatic at the age of 38, with spots found on her hip, liver, sacrum and brain.
Jen bravely used her voice as an MBC advocate after being diagnosed as metastatic to raise awareness for the disease, chronicling her story through her blog and on YouTube. Angelo also captured her courageous journey through photographs to help their family and friends understand what it was like to live with MBC.
About one-third of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. live at least five years after diagnosis. Jen passed away 18 months after being diagnosed as metastatic, three days before Christmas in 2011, at the age of 40.
“At the time, I remember putting one foot in front of the other,” Angelo said. “I had my moments where I just wanted to sit and stare at a wall, and I let myself do that. I let myself be sad. I let myself be hurt.”
About one year after Jen died, Angelo was struggling to find other people his age who had also lost a spouse. He joined a support group for young widows and widowers and instantly felt a connection to others who had experienced the same raw pain of losing a spouse at such a young age.
“That first meeting was one of the first times I thought, ‘I’m going to be OK,’” Angelo said. “If I would’ve buried my head in the ground, I know Jen would’ve been angry with me. She told me she wanted me to live my life and enjoy my life. I feel like I would’ve been disrespecting everything she went through if I would’ve just given up.”
Additionally, finding a therapist who had also lost a spouse was instrumental in helping Angelo continue to move forward and rebuild his life.
“Healing has been an ongoing thing. I don’t want to forget how much it hurts, because I think the other side of that is how much I loved Jen, and how much she loved me,” Angelo said. “I try to remember how fortunate I am to be alive and to not take for granted all the things that I have in my life.”
As Angelo navigated the healing process, sharing the photographs of Jen on social media and speaking publicly about what they experienced together in the final months of her life became a poignant way to honor Jen’s memory.
“Sharing the photographs pushed me to confront what had happened,” Angelo said. “Without that, I think it would’ve been much more difficult for me to have something to find hope in, or to see something good coming from what Jen went through.”
As Angelo’s photos gained critical acclaim — appearing online, in magazines and exhibitions worldwide — messages poured in from people who were living with MBC and loved ones who had also lost someone from the disease.
“I’ve received messages from women who are going through MBC who say, ‘I’ve been able to share those photographs with my family, and they’re starting to get a better understanding of what I’m going through,’” Angelo said. “Sharing these photographs and talking about these photographs has created something good in the world out of something that was really horrible.”
Angelo also lent the photos to Susan G. Komen to help show the reality of living with MBC. He continues to partner with Komen on photography projects — including photographing MBC Steering Committee member Ashley Fernandez — to inspire others and remind everyone facing MBC that they are not alone.
“It’s been important to me to try to contribute anything I can back to the world of cancer,” Angelo said. “I always thought that if these photographs and our story positively impact other people, then that is a way for Jen’s legacy to carry on. I think Jen would be proud of that.”
A decade after Jen’s passing, Angelo wants others who have lost a loved one to MBC to know that they will find purpose and meaning in life again.
“If you’re going through this, keep moving forward,” Angelo said. “Be graceful with yourself. Know you you’ll find joy again. Something as simple as a sunset will make you more thankful than anything. There’s still so much life to live. Out of honor to Jen, I have to live my life again.
Donations made to Komen this week will be designated for critical MBC research. Since our founding, Komen has invested $1.1 billion in breast cancer research, with 72% of our currently funded research projects focused on MBC and other aggressive and deadly breast cancers. Above and beyond the millions of research funding provided each year, this year, we are going one step further to raise $1 million to fund the first ever MBC Excellence in Research Award. Donate to end MBC.