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When Dating Through Cancer, the Only Constant Is Change

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I’m in the first year of a new relationship and I find out I have a lump the doctor says might be cancer. How do I even start a conversation with my partner about this? I’m 20 years old. 20-year-olds don’t have to tell their partners they might have cancer. This conversation is for older people who have lived more of their life and are a bit more settled into their relationships.

Yet here I am, and I need to tell him.

Our first year is full of a variety of dates, spontaneity, passion. It still feels new and nerve-wracking as we share more about ourselves, start to open up a bit more, and learn each other deeper and more intimately. It takes me a while to trust someone in this way, and so much work and time has been built into doing so.

I fear this is all about to change.

One year into a relationship that exists one way has to adapt or it has to end.

I have the conversation. My mind goes fuzzy as I have it (and even as I write this I have to ask my partner to help me remember exactly what happened). But the relationship doesn’t end. He tells me not to panic (yet) because we weren’t entirely sure that cancer is the conclusion at this time.

And things do change.

First, it starts with him. Our relationship is long-distance and I’m not talking a few hours away. We live on opposite sides of the country. He’s living in Washington while I’m in school in New York. It’s the day after he accepts a dream job, one that will keep him rooted and remote. He resigns before it even starts. A big action that sets the tone of our relationship moving forward.

Before this time, the little details while dating didn’t matter as much. Yes, I’ll spend eight hours overnight on a video call. Yes, when we do see each other we’ll spend the entire day galavanting around the forest and downtown. Yes, we’ll make plans and change them at a moment’s notice. My biggest concern is what I will wear to feel comfy, beautiful, and express myself.

Our dates change and we change, knowing there is this elephant ever-present, lingering. A date is him staying at the hospital with me during my first surgery. He distracts me from the fear and the pain by talking and talking. I ask him to tell me things about space and the universe. He does. He only stops once I fall asleep.

And once treatment is over, our dates change again. The positive is we’re now living together and the connection component to our relationship is easier. It takes a year to get myself and my medication stable. A year I spend extra fatigued and sleeping more than usual. A year where I can’t commit to anything without knowing how much I will regret the exertion.

It means more dates at home, friends coming over while I tuck in early. It’s planning every tiny trip with precision to figure out rest and snacks to keep my energy up. It’s avoiding things that make my heart rate increase, as my cancer also comes as a package deal with increased mental health symptoms including anxiety attacks when my heart rate reaches above 100bpm.

I know how extremely lucky I am that one year into this relationship I found someone who didn’t immediately dip at the stressful and scary news. I know previous partners would have, close friends in my life even did. Even so, cancer made this relationship rocky. Being a 20-something and telling your partner how much your relationship and dating has to change is testing – and there are many times we fail.

Cancer changes many things, and I’m glad I found the person willing to change with it and me. And hopefully me needing to share about cancer will be a thing I never have to do again.

Photo courtesy of contributor

Originally published: January 18, 2022
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