Finding Joy Again After Losing Jen

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: Komen has funded research for more than 40 years to find the cures for metastatic breast cancer, also known as stage four. But the five year relative survival rate for those living with MBC remains only 29%. That means seven out of every 10 people with MBC are expected to live less than five years.

This year alone, in the US, nearly 44,000 lives will be lost to MBC. This week is MBC Week and we are publishing a new episode every day to shed light on the people who are impacted the most when a life is lost to MBC: the husbands, daughters, sisters, and friends who are left behind. Each of our guests this week is driven by the purpose to help find the cures for MBC and to be a positive force for hope.

From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.

The loss of a partner or spouse is a traumatic event in the moments leading up to the loss are traumatic as well. While family and friends can be strong sources of support for those with breast cancer, support for their loved ones and caregivers is also crucial. Today’s guest lost his wife, Jennifer, to metastatic breast cancer when he was 38 years old. Here today to share their story a decade later and what his healing process has been like in those years since is Angelo Merendino. Angelo, welcome to the show.

[00:01:42] Angelo Merendino: Hey, thanks for having me.

[00:01:43] Adam Walker: I really appreciate this and I know it’s not an easy topic, so I, I appreciate you just sharing openly with us. Let’s start with Jennifer’s story. Let’s talk, tell us about her diagnosis and what that was like for the two of you, especially the time in your life that was unique for the two of you.

[00:02:03] Angelo Merendino: Well, I, I, I’d love to maybe tell you a little bit in advance of Jen’s diagnosis because I think. You know, is a significant part of our story. And Jen and I met she was managing a bar in Cleveland, a restaurant bar. And, and I was looking for a job and I I showed up one day and there was a sign on the door that said you know, back in 15 minutes, she was out running a quick errand.

The restaurant was closed. They were only open in the evening. And so I sat on the stoop and I saw a car pull in, and then I saw Jen walk around the corner and I, you know, was like getting hit by lightning bolt. I just, I had that feeling like, well, that’s, I, I’m, I, and I’m in love, you know? And so the, the funny part is the Jen didn’t really feel the same thing at first, you know?

So I did get the job and, and, and Jen and I became friends. And I just, you know, I would get so nervous around Jen. I just, it, it wasn’t anything about her. It, it was, it was me because I was a very shy person. And Jen on the other hand, was just the kindest person I’d ever met, you know, and, and she was beautiful.

 And she was just, you could just tell. So many people that I’ve talked with have felt the same thing about Jen when you met her or when you knew her. You just knew this is a great person, you know. So Jen few weeks after that, she got a job in New York and she moved. And I just thought, you know, well, you know, aside from thinking, you know, she’s in New York, I’m in Cleveland I just didn’t think she would want.

Date me, you know? But we kept in touch and, and we became really good friends. And at the time I was playing in a band, and if we’d go to New York to play a show or to record, I’d always meet up with Jen or you know, I’d go to visit my brother and sister-in-law who lived in New York, and I’d always meet up with Jen.

And I would always have the same thing where I’d. I’d say goodbye to her. I’d walk her back to her apartment, or she’d get on the subway and I would just be thinking, you know, tell her you’re crazy about her. And I just couldn’t, you know, I just didn’t have the guts to do it, I guess. But I finally did tell her I, you know, I, as cool as I ever thought I could be.

I, I ended up telling her I had a crush on her, so I felt like a, a third grader, you know. But but she said that she felt the same. And, and that was it, you know I was still living in Cleveland and Jen was in New York, but we started a long distance relationship. And this was in 2007? Yeah. And 2006, I’m sorry, 2006.

I sold almost everything I, I had and got a little money together and moved to New York with You know, I was a musician and buting photographer, and so I didn’t have a, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have many prospects for a job, but I was in love with Jen and I knew like we’d figure it out. And so when I, when I left, you know, I, I flew to New York and I had a, an engagement ring in my pocket.

And I laugh a lot about this when I, when I think back about it, I, I, I had bought Jen a non-traditional engagement ring. It was a real chunky ring that I thought was more of her style. And I, you know, I was wearing my, my rock and roll skinny jeans, and I had this. Ring in my pocket, and I was so nervous that I was going to lose it or would fall out of my pocket, and I kept tapping the ring in my pocket to make sure it was there.

But I mean, you could have hung me upside down by my feet and those skinny jeans, you wouldn’t lose that ring. But I was, I was so nervous because I was going to ask her to marry me, you know? Yeah. So I did, I landed, we went to our favorite restaurant, and I, I got down on my knee and, which was a big thing for me because again, I was really shy and I, I thought, Oh no, I don’t want people to make big fuss.

I asked Jen to marry me, and, and she, she yelled, Shut up, you know, . So I kind of had a split second of thinking, what does that mean, you know? And she said, Yes. And, and the, one of the cool things was that nobody really, I’m sure people saw it, but nobody didn’t anything. They, I felt like it was a great welcome to New York.

Like, Hey, do your thing. As long as it’s not hurting anybody, people are going to let you be, you know? So then we Jen and I were married on September 1st, 2007 in Central Park. And it was, you know, the world was our oyster. I I, I cried pretty easily and I remember when I saw Jen walking on the path, I I just couldn’t believe that she was going to marry me, you know?

So it was the beginning of our life, you know, And again, the world was our oyster. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew I was married to the first person other than a family member who believed in me. And, and I thought, well, we’ll figure it out. Whatever comes our way, you know? So five months later you know, Jen had felt a lump in her breast.

Well, her, her general practitioner did. And she went for some tests and Jen had a bit of a history of lumps and so she was nervous about this one, but I remember saying, Okay, hey, let’s try not to get ahead of ourselves. We’ll figure it out. And the last thing that I was thinking was cancer. But you know, she had gone in and had some tests and I was at work one day and Jen called and I picked up the phone and she said, I have breast cancer and.

You know that I, I immediately was numb and you know, even, you know, that was February of 2008, so even 14 years later there’s still a little numbness. You know, I just remember life kind of went upside down and I went and told my boss, I said, Hey, I have to go. Gen has cancer. And it was just, Even to this day to say that it’s just a, it doesn’t feel real, you know?

And so there we were, you know, five months as a, a married couple and our, you know, we’re excited about life and most people in that point are thinking about, you know, you maybe starting a family, buying a house one day or career things, and then all of a sudden we’re into this world. Should Jen get a lumpectomy, a double mastectomy?

What chemotherapy should we use? You know, you’re, you have no choice but to, to make these decisions and, and that those aren’t easy decisions to make, especially when you have no, no medical background or, or no experience in that world, you know? So life kinda got turned upside down really quickly. But as I mentioned earlier, Jen and I.

From, from dating long distance, we had really developed a strong sense of communication, and that was critical for us because we were in this environment where we had to really, we had to pick up on each other’s feelings because sometimes these were hard things to put into words and that ability to communicate and listen to each other and.

Read each other’s feelings or, or pick up on each other’s vibe was that was, that was very important in our, in our navigation through this world of breast cancer.

[00:10:03] Adam Walker: Hmm. Wow. I mean, that, that’s just, that’s a profound shock, I’m sure. I mean that early, you know, into your marriage. So can you talk a little bit about, What helped the two of you start to deal with that and get through those times?

When she was first sick,

[00:10:19] Angelo Merendino: we went in for Jens double mastectomy, and I remember that day because, well, for many reasons, but one of my brothers and one of my sisters were there and they’re, they’re both very big influences on me and have been a huge part of my. And they were there, and Jen’s parents and Jen’s sister, and I remember when they called out from Mr.

Marin, Dino after the surgery was done. And I kind of looked up at my brother because he is my older brother and I’ve always kind of deferred to him, you know, and, and then I thought, Oh man, they’re talking about me. And all of a sudden it was very, it was very, it was already clear to me that that was when things sharp into a point of, okay, you know, This is life happening.

You know, it’s not going to be fair, but you have to stand up. And so we were very fortunate in that first year and, and after, but the first year of treatment, especially our, our family and our friends were incredibly supportive. And they, you know, they had fundraisers for us, which was huge because you all of a sudden come across these, these expenses that you, you, you are not even.

You don’t even know exist. And, you know, I was, I was working less, and thankfully Jen’s employer, we, we had great insurance benefits and she was able to go on, on leave and we were fortunate. But still, you know, it, it’s not cheap, you know, and, and you, you can’t really plan, like all of a sudden you have to go do this or you have to get this, or you have to take a cab to the, to this appointment because Jen was in no condition to get on the subway or a train, you know.

So we had this amazing support group. It was, it was incredible. And, and, and I don’t know how we, we, we would’ve gotten through it, but I can’t imagine not having everyone around us for that. And it was, it was amazing, you know, and I, I’m beyond thankful for that support. So after Jen finished her first run of treatment, it.

A double mastectomy. And then let’s see. I’m trying to remember the order. I think it was chemotherapy, radiation, then reconstruction. And so basically all this finished, I think that was the order. All that finished after a year. So I remember we were celebrating our one year anniversary slash. Jen finishing a year of, of cancer treatment.

So it was just everything had, everything was flavored by cancer. And after that, Jen and I were trying to put our life back together, which wasn’t as simple as putting your life back together because we had this experience that really put mortality in our face. and it challenged our beliefs and it challenged how we thought our life would be and and what was important and what wasn’t important.

And also for Jen, anytime she felt anything in her body, she was worried it might be cancer. That was our biggest fear, that gens cancer was going to come back, that it was going to metastasize, But people didn’t understand that. And. In hindsight, I can understand a little better than at did the time, but people would say things like, Well, you should just be happy.

You know, the cancer’s gone and we were happy about that. Mm-hmm. , But it wasn’t like you just flipped a switch and you were back to, Okay, let’s live our life. At least it wasn’t for us. So we started to notice that it was hard to express that to people and. You know, everyone has their life and people were getting back to their life.

And so it sort of felt like, well, we got through that, but now we’re kind of alone. And we noticed that people didn’t know how to talk to us. And so, so the room, it would change when we walked in. And, and that was difficult because we understood it. You know, we were, every young couples like we, we were who they didn’t want to be.

But it was also difficult because we still needed support. And so gen’s cancer did metastasize about a year and a half later and we were back in that world and that’s when we really noticed that people didn’t understand how serious it was. And, and we would often hear people say things like, We just have, you just have to have faith and stay positive.

And those are important. When your cancer metastasizes and you’re back in this treatment, that isn’t all of it. You know? And, and as things as Jen’s cancer was spreading we felt more and more alone, even more so than we did after we finished that first year of treatment. And so we had tried to talk to people and.

Janet had started a blog where she was writing about what was going on, hoping that people would get it, you know, like, Hey, this isn’t just stay positive, like we are positive, but there’s more to it. And so so at that time too, you have to remember that in 2010, in 11, there was less on the internet.

Social media wasn’t what it’s like now in 2022. And so when, when Jen would try and find more information, it was very, What she was finding was, was very clinical. And so we were in the hospital Jen, it was, it was a 15 day hospital stay. My parents sent a card. Jen’s parents came in to help, but we didn’t hear from anybody else.

And I remember thinking, do you guys have any idea what 15 days in the hospital is like? And I, I know the answer is no, and it hurt, you know? So that’s when I said to Jen, I said, Hey, can I photograph what we’re going through? Maybe, maybe if they see us, then they’ll have an idea of what’s going on, more of an idea, and, and maybe they’ll get our message.

And so, you know, Jen trusted me and she knew that. Before any photo would be made that, that I was making sure that she was okay. Mm-hmm. . And she said, you know, Yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s cool by me. And so I just started photographing our day to day life. And it, there was no intention of anything other than sending photos to our family from time to time.

And, and that’s what we did. And, and then, After that a, a good friend of ours said, Hey, for what it’s worth, I think if you share these online, there are a lot of people who can relate to these, so you may be able to affect some other people. And so Jen was okay with it. And I started sharing the photos that I was making.

And not surprisingly, but surprisingly, because they. You know, it’s not like a photo of a dog. You, you post a photo of a dog online and it blows up the internet and that’s great, but you post photos of serious things in life and sometimes that gets lost. But, but people were responding. And for me at that time, it kind of gave me a sense of, it gave me an ability to express feelings that I was having.

That I couldn’t really put into words, you know? Mm-hmm. . Yeah. So Jen’s cancer continued to spread and you know, her, in October of 2011, her cancer went to her brain, and that’s when I really had a hard time. Denying the reality that she was, there was a good chance that, that Jen was going to pass and sooner rather than later.

And thankfully, you know, we, we had an amazing oncologist and, and her team that they were incredible. We had a social worker who was looking out for us, and I can’t imagine life without Raz. She was just, is just an incredible human being who holds a special place in my heart. And but you know, I, I, I kind of knew where things were going and.

 We did find out four days after Jen’s 40th birthday that her liver was failing for three days actually. And, and at any day she could pass, you know, So we came home from the hospital on December 10th, 2011, and we decided to, to open our home to our family and friends, our tiny little apartment. And for the next 10 days, our home was just filled with love.

It was really beautiful of people coming to see Jen and, and and then on the, on the, I think it was the 20th, that’s when it was like, okay, it, it’s time to just be Jen and me and and her parents and my brother and sister, who I mentioned earlier. Who, who my brother. Lives in Harlem, and my sister came into New York and and then December 22nd at eight 30 at 8:30 PM that’s when Jen took her last breath.

And even a decade later, you know, we’re actually coming up on 11 years. It’s, it, it’s, it’s still It, it still doesn’t seem real, you know? There are days when it’s, it’s tougher than others, you know, but it’s just kinda, it, it’s hard to it’s really tough to just, to just believe. It’s really difficult to believe that this happened to Jen, you know, and, and that she’s, that she died.

I mean, it was it’s really difficult to believe that Jen’s not here, you know, even after all this time. I understand it, you know, but, you know, life isn’t fair and, and Jen didn’t deserve this, you know, she was like the kindest person that I’d ever known. And that’s not just coming from me. You know, everybody who knew Jen felt that way, you know, but itself, because life isn’t fair, you know?

And so for me, what’s important now is to honor her legacy and to, to live my life knowing that it’s, that every day is a gift. And that it’s not guaranteed and that you know, I was really fortunate to be loved by someone like Jen. That’s, that’s not a given in life. You know? That’s a, Yeah, that’s a gift.

[00:21:44] Adam Walker: Yeah. She sounds amazing. And, and sounds like you had an amazing life together. I, I do want to circle back just for a moment about your photography. I had the opportunity to look at it and I mean, just wow. Like it, what you were able to communicate through your photography is just profound. And I, I’ve been, I’ve been doing these interviews for a long time and I, and I’ve, I’ve talked to people a lot about their experience, but being able to see it from that vantage point really began to change my.

Perspective. And I, I really appreciate that. So can you talk a little bit about where people can, you know, see the photography uh, cause I want to make sure that other people get the opportunity to experience that as well.

[00:22:30] Angelo Merendino: Thank you. Well, you know, I, as I mentioned earlier, I had no intention of anything other than communicating with our family when I started making these photographs and.

Over the, the years I’ve, I’ve wondered why people shared this story so much because it is intense. You know, I, Jen died and I know it’s about breast cancer and, but I also think it’s about love and I think that’s why people shared these photographs. And I also think that when I. When I think about these photographs, I think that Jen made them as much as I did because she trusted me.

And, and I think that’s what resonates with people when they see these photographs. And for me, you know, it, it is Jen’s legacy. It’s the most important thing in my life, and I, it’s important to me to honor her. And so I’m very thankful that. That our experience is one that has, has been helpful to other people.

Because if Jen would’ve died and this didn’t happen, it at least this doesn’t make it okay, but at least something good is coming out of it. Yeah. And so these, you know, these photos are on my website is just my name, angelo and you’ll see. A link to this series and I’ve done a few TED talks about our experience, you know, that are also on there.

And I just, you know, for me, sharing and making these photographs has, has been part of my healing process because after Gen Pass, I was going through all these photographs and. Created an opportunity for me to really take a minute and think about things and think about what we had been through. And E everyone is going to have their own approach to things.

But from the beginning, Jen and I were, we didn’t want to not feel this. Yeah, we were very We knew and, and we discussed this, that this was difficult and it, it was emotional and there were going to be times when we needed to, to really break down and, and, and be there for each other. And, and no one try to know when to let each other what allow each other cry.

And when to say, Hey, okay, now we gotta, we gotta move forward. You know? And so for me, Going through these photographs and talking about them and sharing them was a way for me to begin the process of, you know, putting my life back together and figuring out who I am. And, yeah, and I, I just, I knew that if I, for me personally, I knew that if I would.

Not gone head first into this, it would’ve grown into something that would’ve been, that wouldn’t have been good for me. You know? Yeah. Yeah. I, I think, as I mentioned, everyone has their own way of processing things, but I think what’s important is that you do. Process things in your own way and in a healthy way.

[00:26:04] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah, That’s right. And, and, and la last comment about your photography and then, and then I want to ask you a couple of more questions. But I, I will just say what stunned me about your photography is that in the one sense it was beautiful and in the other, since it was just profoundly heartbreaking.

 And it just, it really moved me. And I, I really appreciate that. Thank. So, so Mo moving to, to a couple of other questions here. You partnered with Susan Gman on some recent campaigns. Why, like, talk about why you’re staying involved. You’re, you’re a decade removed from this experience. What keeps you motivated and involved?

[00:26:45] Angelo Merendino: There are a lot of reasons. Why I am very thankful to be partnering with Susan Gman on these projects where we’re working to tell stories of other people who are going through this. One reason is that I think that people just don’t understand what day to day life is like with breast cancer, and I think the reason is because they, maybe they haven’t experienced it, and that’s great.

I would rather people didn’t experience this. But from my experience, the lack of, you know, more real day to day stories about what this is like, that was difficult for Jen and me. You know, it made it hard for our friends and family to know what to do. And so when I was contacted by Susan G. Komen to.

Work on these campaigns. It was, it was incredible for me because I thought, this is, you know, this means more to me than, than any other work I could do because I know that feeling. And the other thing is that, you know, I, I feel a strange comfort in being around people who are experiencing this. It’s like, you can, you can say something, something to them and they get.

It’s not right, better, or worse or more or less than someone who hasn’t been through it. But it’s just different when you say something and someone’s just, Oh, I get that. As opposed to saying something in their eyes glass over because they can’t even imagine it. So for me, it’s like to get to do this, to get to go make these photographs, that will hopefully help other people.

I don’t know what could be cooler in life, you know, like to, to me that’s, that’s what, that’s what makes the sunrise and the moon set, you know. That’s fantastic,

[00:28:42] Adam Walker: man. I love that you’re getting that opportunity. So the last two questions are kind of related to advice. So the first one, do you have any advice for listeners that might have recently lost someone in that are struggling?

[00:28:57] Angelo Merendino: I remember. Meeting an older gentleman who had, who had experienced what I had gone through, his wife passed. And even though our lives were a little different, you know, he was 20 years older than me. He had had kids and, and he and his wife had had a longer time together than Jen and me. I remember he said, Time is a great heal.

And when he said that, I remember thinking, You’re out of your mind. You know this life is never going to not be pain. And what I found to be true for me about that statement is that over time, that pain, it’s still there. But initially, after Jen passed, it was a daily punch to the gut. Mm. I remember times when I, I remember one time in particular I was waiting for a subway train and I, I just knew I was going to fall apart and I sprinted home and I got through the door, locked the door and laid in the ground, and just, I, I couldn’t stop crying.

But now there are moments like that where it just hurts. But they’re not daily like they were at that time. And I’ve gotten stronger and I can rebound quicker. And so now when I think back about him saying, Time is great healer, I think I understand more of what he was trying to tell me. Yeah. Yeah. But I, I think it’s important to find your way to.

Find your way to heal. If, if that’s talking to a therapist, find the right therapist and commit to it. That’s been helpful to me. I, I have an amazing therapist and I talk to her still twice a month and it’s, it’s great to be able to talk to someone who, who can help. Yeah. But if your way of, of processing this is to.

Go out in nature and go for a hike on a regular basis if it’s to, to, to do something productive. Do something, you know and, and do it at your pace. There are going to be people who are going to tell you what to do, what not to do, and take what I’m saying with the grain salt, you know, but it’s your path to, to follow and.

I just think it’s important to address it and to not let it, To not let it go Unad address because it, it won’t go away. Yeah. And there are, there are support groups if you, if that’s your way of doing things. I, I went to a, a support group where everyone else was around my age and we’d all lost a spouse and it was just amazing to look at someone else and, and.

Say something and know that they got it, or sometimes they would be the one to say something and I could just say, Yep, I get it. Yeah. But be easy on yourself. Yeah. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s a traumatic experience. It’s a painful experience, and there’s no timeframe on healing. I think you just have to do the work.

I feel like there’s. More to say. I’m just trying to figure out how to word this.

[00:32:35] Adam Walker: I’m not, I think you did, I think you covered it really well. I mean, that was great advice. There were, there were, there were I think two or three really good nuggets in there that we’ll be able to pull out for sure. Last question, kind of turning the former question on its head just a bit, do you have any advice for friends and family of someone that have recently experienced loss?

How can they be the most supportive? Is there anything they can say or do to be helpful?

[00:33:00] Angelo Merendino: If you know someone who lost a spouse or a family member, I think one of the most important things to remember is that you don’t have to have the answers, but it’s important to be there. No one is is going to have that magic thing that if, if you just say this or I’m going to feel better now, but feeling like you’re alone doesn’t help.

So send a text message and say, Hey, I love you. Tell us. Let people know you’re there for them and just don’t fall off the face of the earth. I think people didn’t know what to say to me, so they just avoided me and then I felt great. Now, Gen Jen died and now my family and friends, not all, all of them, but a lot of them are not there and.

I have hindsight to look back on this, and I, I understand better why people responded to me the way that they did. Mm-hmm. , and, and if someone else had gone through this and not me, I, I don’t know how I would’ve responded. Right. But be there for people and under try to understand what someone’s going through.

You know, I, I had a friend who said something, Said and did something really profound. He he was traveling from Akron, which is where General I grew up to Vermont and he was taking Amtrack, so the train was going through New York and he called and left a voicemail and said, Hey Angelo I’m going to be coming through New York and I’d love to see you.

I understand if you want to be alone. But if you want someone to just sit and stare at a wall with you, I would love to sit and stare at a wall with you. And for me, what that translated to was that he understood that the wind might blow a certain way and I would just need to cry or I would just need to stop.

Yeah. And what, what that did for me is that it took off any pressure. Feeling like I had to be or do a certain thing. Yeah. Yeah. So I think it’s important to just, it’s important to be there. It’s important to, to be patient with someone who’s going through this because I didn’t understand those feelings, you know?

And yeah, I remember the first time I filled out an application or not, it was a, a form at my doctor’s office. And it was single, married, divorced, widowed. So you know, I remember signing that, checking that box and just being numb for a couple of minutes, you know? So just give a loved one, some grace and some patience, and let them know you’re there for them and.

And then if they call and say, Hey, I need you, just be there for them. You know, because it isn’t always, it’s not like a, a scheduled thing where it’s like, Hey, you know, on, on this day at this time, I’m going to be ready to talk about the worst experience in my life. Right. You know, sometimes it’s like, Hey, do you have a minute?

I, I need to talk. And I know that’s difficult because everyone has their life going on, but at the end of the day, When I think back about the people who, who kind of fell off the face of the earth years ago, I was angry about that because I thought Jen was so good to all of you. How could you not be there for her?

Yeah. But what I’ve landed on now, which I had to land on for my own mental health was that I, I kind of felt bad because they missed out on something beautiful.

[00:37:03] Adam Walker: That’s good. That’s really, really good advice, man. And that’s just your, your comment, you know, they missed out on something beautiful. That’s a really profound statement.

So Angelo thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for sharing Jen’s story. And just thank you for being here today. Thank you. I, I appreciate appreciate being in here and your time.

[00:37:26] Angelo Merendino: And if you need anything, just let me know.

[00:37:28] Adam Walker: We will, we will. And to our listeners if you do want to see Angelo’s photos, just a reminder, you can go to and it’s under the projects section. We’ll also have a link in the show notes. And thank you for joining us on the show.

All funds donated to Komen this week will be dedicated to funding the cutting-edge research to one day end MBC. People living with MBC are desperately waiting for new treatments to extend and improve their quality of life. Visit to donate.

Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit For more on breast cancer, visit Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog,