Fear, laughter ... One couple's advice on facing a terminal diagnosis

April 26, 2015 | by Denise Heady

When Keith McKinny, 29, was first diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia in 2010, the first person he thought of was former boyfriend Jason Mullins.

couple facing cancer Lymphoma patient Keith McKinny and his husband share some advice on how to cope when one partner is diagnosed with cancer.

The two hadn't been in contact with each other for some time, but McKinny couldn’t think of anyone else with whom he wanted to be during that difficult period. He knew he had to find Mullins.

That proved more challenging than McKinny had imagined. Even with the help of the Internet and social media networking sites, McKinny wasn’t able to locate and communicate with his former boyfriend.

There was little left for McKinny to do but continue with his treatment on his own, as best he could. After his doctors in Hemet, California, told him there was nothing else they could do for him, he was transferred to City of Hope. At that time, his prognosis suggested he had but two months to live. Fortunately, because of City of Hope, that prognosis proved to be too grim.

In March 2011, McKinny had a stem cell transplant at City of Hope, which gave him more time with his family and friends, not to mention additional time to find Mullins. Finally, in 2013, three years after his diagnosis, McKinny located Mullins. They connected. The two have been inseparable ever since.

Ultimately, undeterred by McKinny's still-terminal prognosis, they married. Now they're going through McKinny's end-of-life journey together, gaining perspective and wisdom along the way.

“Cancer is a journey you don’t want a take, but sometimes you don’t have a choice,” said Jason Mullins, now Jason McKinny. “I wanted to go through this with Keith not only as a friend or boyfriend, but as his husband.”

The couple is often asked how they cope – that is, how they can handle a relationship – knowing that Keith won’t be cured.

For Jason the answer is straightforward. “Cancer is hard, but you have to see the light,” he said. “Keith is my person and I want to be here for him.”

Here, the couple shares their perspective, and their advice, on how to cope when one partner has received a terminal diagnosis.

1. Don’t be afraid to say you’re scared.

“You don’t always have to be strong, but you have to maintain open communication with your partner,” Jason said. There are times when you need to keep your emotions in check, but it’s also important tell your significant other when you are afraid. “It’s OK to be vulnerable."

2. Have those tough conversations.

“Keith and I have had conversations that are difficult topics for couples to talk about,” Jason said. “We filled out an advance directive; we’ve talked about a funeral and what his wishes are. Those conversations don’t always happen in a relationship, but are important and can make you even closer.”

3. Don’t forget to laugh.

Going through treatment is difficult, but it doesn’t mean you have to be serious all the time. “You have to be able to keep your sense of humor,” Keith said. Being able to laugh with your partner can make a huge difference

4. Be spontaneous.

Don't stay confined to your house, Jason said. When Keith was first diagnosed with cancer, his cousins took him skydiving, ziplining and flew him to Vegas for a quick trip. These are experiences that Keith now cherishes.

5. Learn to accept your circumstance.

Being able to accept your prognosis makes life much easier, Keith said. “There’s a level of acceptance that I have come to grips with, and it’s a lot easier to accept certain things than to fight it,” he added.


Learn more about supportive care medicine at City of Hope and how to make an advance directive.


Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.



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