02/26/2014 09:52 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

A Cancer Patient's Guide to Wedding Planning

My boyfriend proposed to me on a romantic walk along the California coastline. As he asked me to be his bride, the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing through his short, chestnut hair. But it wasn't blowing through mine. I was bald as Lex Luther, having just completed six months of intensive chemotherapy for lymphoma. We were 27 years old, and after dating for eight years, George and I decided to finally wed. Unfortunately, this would mean planning a wedding during a time in which we could barely plan ahead more than one week at a time. A few months after our engagement, I underwent an additional course of chemotherapy and a grueling bone marrow stem cell transplant. Three months later, we received the good news that I was cancer free. I had reached remission, but my health and prognosis were still very precarious, and I would need to have scans every three months. Forget planning a wedding in a year or even six months: if we wanted to plan a party, we would have to do it quickly, all while waiting under the sword of Damocles.

Many brides complain about the stresses of planning a wedding. Whether it's the cost, the societal expectations, or the dizziness that ensues after thinking about the DIY projects, there can be a lot to deal with. This stress is supported -- if not fully created -- by the Wedding Industrial Complex, which works to make sure that all brides and grooms feel compelled to spend more, stress more, and obsess more about this one day of their lives. As a recently freed cancer patient, I thought that I would be immune to these stresses and pressures. Stress was worrying that my cancer was growing, wondering if I would live to be 35, and fearing the pain that my disease and potential death might bring to my loved ones. Stress was not picking out flowers, making seating charts, or choosing bridesmaid dresses. But as I began to read wedding magazines and flip through blogs, I began to feel increasingly isolated and, well, stressed. As a young adult with cancer, I was used to feeling like a black sheep, but having to plan a wedding introduced a whole new army of instances in which I felt self-conscious and even inadequate.

For starters, most brides aren't bald. I was thrilled when my hair began to grow back, and I immediately googled "brides with short hair" in order to get inspiration for my nascent locks. Photos of women with hair at their shoulders popped up, as did articles instructing nervous brides to start planning their hair two years in advance of their weddings just so that it could be the perfect length. I nervously fingered my own hair, which stood proudly at about a half of an inch, and I tried to take comfort in thinking that I would at least save money on a stylist.

In addition to having hair, most brides also seemed to have more time and flexibility in planning their wedding. We didn't know how long my remission would last, so we decided to get married within the window of time that we had. This forced us to ignore the majority of planning tips, which encouraged nervous brides to take their time and "choose the right moment." Cancer had made us accustomed to not being picky about timing, but this concept seemed to be anathema to many people in the wedding industry. From buying a dress to securing a caterer, we quickly learned that six weeks was not considered much in terms of lead time. Finding a dress was a particularly peculiar task for me, given that I was getting used to my newly cancer-free (and much frailer) body. One saleslady asked me what size I was, and I told her that I wasn't sure because I had recently lost a lot of weight. Certain that this was intentional, she flashed me a triumphant smile and declared, "Congratulations!" I politely explained that my weight loss was due to illness, and then we endured an awkward moment where we each silently pondered the absurdity of society's beauty ideals.

One evening, after surfing through some blogs and looking at happy brides with big hairdos and insouciant expressions, I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I had never been a perfectionist, but like most girls, I had thought about what my wedding day might look like. I had wondered whether I would wear my big curly hair up or down, and what kind of dress I might wear. I had never thought that I might be sporting a buzz cut and a few chest scars from surgeries and catheters. Since my diagnosis, I had long given up on the control over how my body looked. There were times during my treatment when I barely recognized myself, and I felt lucky to be getting married with some hair, strength, and health. Intellectually I understood that my wedding day was just like any other day, and that it was a fantasy for anyone, let alone a cancer patient, to think that I would be at the apogee of my beauty. But the industry had gotten to me. I let it make me feel irresponsible for trying to plan a wedding in eight weeks -- a respectable amount of time to plan any other type of party. I let it make me feel imbalanced for wearing a big dress without the big hair. And, worst of all, I let it make me feel somehow like I didn't belong in the pantheon of brides.

Fortunately, my fiancé talked me out of this moment of self-deprecation, and I quickly felt foolish for having ever felt insufficient. I had lost sight of what our wedding was truly about: marrying the love of my life and celebrating with our loved ones. My fiancé and I had never wanted a traditional wedding, and we ultimately got married in a modern studio space surrounded by 90 of our closest family and friends. Even with scars and short hair, I never felt prettier or happier. We had barbecue, plenty of booze, and minimal but beautiful decorations. Our wedding was perfect, even if the circumstances surrounding it were less than ideal.

I am not saying that couples shouldn't get stressed about planning a wedding. It is an expensive and logistically complicated undertaking, and it is often the first (and only) large party that you will throw. But you should never feel inferior, whether it's because you are in a wheelchair, can't afford a photobooth, or simply don't give a damn about the centerpieces. When you say "yes" to the proposal, remember to say "no" to the wedding industry that will soon be proposing many of its own questions.

Pauline Lewis is a writer, cancer survivor, and historian in training in Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History at UCLA. She blogs about her experience as a cancer patient at

This post first appeared on A Practical Wedding.

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