Love and Dating When You're Living and Dying With Breast Cancer
In my very first story I published about breast cancer, “Online Dating: No Nipples Required!,” I went straight up to the elephant in the room and smacked him in the face. Looking back now, it was the only way I could start. But what a way to make my debut.
Cancer can make people weird. (Or weirder, in my case).
Since then I’ve tried to distance myself from the whole cancer ordeal, or at least in writing about it. To be honest, it’s no fun to be the girl who writes about cancer, and unless you have or have had cancer, I don’t think anyone really wants to read it.
But the thing is — once you’ve had cancer, your life is changed forever, and it becomes a part of your identity. And my perspective changed simultaneously for the better and the worst.
I think about dying a lot. If you need statistics, I was told I had a 60/40 chance the cancer would come back, and at that point, it would be incurable. But that was all before a small local recurrence and now who the fuck knows what my odds are. I could just make up a number now, so I’ll say 10/90. Yes, that sounds good.
I also think about living a lot. I’m here, alive and cancer-free for now. The now is important. What to do with the now? I have no answers for you.
How does one really live while also constantly being aware of their own mortality?
One would think it would make a person take off and follow their dreams. Often I thought about running away to Spain and writing on the beach. But there’s still the chance I might live a long time, so in that case, I still had to plan for retirement, pay my bills, etc. Either way, the reality is money — among many other constraints — is a factor.
Finding the balance between possibly living for a very short time and possibly living for a very long time is maddening. So I try to stick to this: I pretend I have exactly five years to live.
Why five years? This is long enough to make some real plans, to make a real difference somehow, to spend time with family and friends, to still find that dream job, to continue to learn and discover, and to not dwell on death.
And the five-year plan is also short enough to not be complacent, or take things for granted, or worry about stupid shit.
I’m still trying to master my five-year plan, by the way. I worry about plenty of stupid shit, e.g. last night I was sure there was a cashew stuck in my throat and I almost went to the ER. The next morning I felt fine.
I really think it’s this way for everyone, whether they’ve had a life-threatening illness or not. None of us know how much time we have left or what to do with it. (Why are you reading this? Are you searching for answers? Me, too.)
At any rate, right after I recovered from all the surgeries, I really wanted to spend some time dating. And by “dating” I mean just dating with no long-term commitment. Having been married twice, you’d think I had some experience in dating, but I didn’t. It was more like hanging out with a person a couple of times and suddenly becoming their wife.
You could say dating was number one on my bucket list. And while I was a tiny bit embarrassed of my chest, I was the most comfortable in my own skin than I’d ever been. But being comfortable (and almost fearless) didn’t last.
You see, there’s a window of time (albeit a narrow one) after a serious medical diagnosis that allows one to see the world for how it really is — open and beautiful and full of love. Inhibitions fall away. And all the bullshit you thought was important — like whether your ass is too small, or you have stretch marks and enormous feet, or whether you said the wrong thing at a party — isn’t a concern any longer.
It’s why old people aren’t afraid to speak their minds or wear the same shirt every day. They give no fucks, and for good reason.
So back to the dating. Given the window was open, the “why” is simple: I wanted to be in love. The ridiculous “screaming-it-from-the-rooftop having-sex-until-it-almost-kills-you” kind of love. And there was a freedom in that kind of thinking , a definitive “I’m-not-going-to-fucking-settle” determination.
As you can imagine, online dating was messy, even aside from all the cancer stuff.
Just like for any other person who’s out there trying to find love, there was fun and lust and love and of course, plenty of heartbreak and disappointment. I experienced all those things, just as I needed to. Maybe I even wanted my heart broken. Who knows what was driving my subconscious? Not me.
Oh wait… life, death, life, death… now I remember.
But here’s the thing I struggle with now: I tried (or I think I tried) to just date and be in love and not become seriously involved with someone. It didn’t seem fair. Even though I was completely upfront about my previous medical history with all the guys I dated, I’m not sure they understood what they were potentially getting themselves into with me.
I still wonder if it was fair. Probably not.
An aside: I did not put “cancer survivor/warrior/slayer” on my online dating profile, but I had a strict rule by the third date I would reveal my “secret” in full detail. Most of the guys didn’t care or they pretended to not be bothered by it.
I can’t say for sure, and I also can’t say how I would’ve reacted had the situation been reversed, and that makes me feel terrible. I hope I’m the kind of person who would think, “Love is love for however long it lasts.”
And so this is how it went in the beginning of my relationship with my boyfriend, whom I’ve been living with for the last three and half years:
Me: “I am not your girlfriend. I’m just a girl you hang out with who occasionally stops by very tipsy and sleeps in your bed.”
My boyfriend: “OK. Sure, babe…”
But after a couple of months of declaring myself not his girlfriend I definitely was. It was no longer my brain’s choice or a reality I could deny.
I was deeply in love with him.
So one day I said, “OK, I guess I am your girlfriend now.”
And he replied, “Yup. You have been for awhile.”
And by the way, it was (and still) is the “ridiculous, screaming-it-from-the-rooftop, having-sex-until-it-almost-kills-you kind of love” I was desperately searching for.
To think I could just date and not fall in love and want to share my life with someone was foolish. But to set out to fall in love and share my life someone seemed selfish. I couldn’t feel so open and in love with the world and also close myself off to all this lovely world has to
It’s a contradiction my heart wouldn’t allow.
Now I’m being a bad writer since I’ve completely forgotten where I was going with all this.
I’m just thinking about how much I miss my boyfriend, who is out of town right now. I don’t have an end for this story.
Maybe that’s the way it should be….
This post was originally published on Medium.
Thinkstock photo by wuttichok