Dating after cancer is the same as everything after cancer. It’s fun, confusing, depressing, memorable, inspiring and torturous among many other emotions that I cannot explain. Lately, dating has been fucking hilarious. I came across a guy on Bumble who had about 15 clothespins stuck to his face. In a past life, I would have swiped right out of sheer curiosity, but if cancer has done one thing, it’s made me sit up and listen. It’s made me rethink the choices I make, particularly in terms of romantic relationships.
Writers often lead fairly experimental lives, myself included. Over the years, I’ve had some real relationship doozies. I once had to financially support a travel partner during a month-long backpacking trip in the far reaches of South America because he blew his $100 budget on cocaine on the first night. Another one of my husbands left me stranded in a Scottish village because he was in the middle of a mental health crisis as a result of his bipolar disorder. Most recently, my ex-partner and father of my children stood me up on the eve of my double mastectomy so he could go out drinking. There’s a theme here, one that I’m determined to change.
These days, I date mostly through Bumble although I’m also kind of seeing someone in person. The fact that a person can use data and technology to both increase the size of their dating pool and the quality of it blows my mind. But I don’t understand it, so I move onto more tangible things such as how online dating is an incredible invitation in the psyche of a stranger. The way people position themselves, their needs, their flaws, their excuses and their sadness is mind boggling. It’s both an incredibly shallow experience and an incredibly vulnerable one.
For me, online dating is also a new experience. Before cancer, I never had to look for dates. I looked better than I do now, but the main differentiator is confidence. I used to be confident both in my looks and in my person. I was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer in December 2017 and finished radiation, double mastectomy and chemo by Oct. 30, 2018. My hair has been growing for a year and I’m sort of used to not having tits. For these reasons, I feel like I should feel confident by now, but I am not. When I’m walking in public, I have to remind myself to pull my shoulders back, stand tall and take up space. I’m so used to trying to hide my body that I forgot what it feels like to own it.
I love online dating because it removes the reactive journey of attraction and allows me to spend some time thinking about who I want to spend my precious hours with. Thank you cancer and thank you Bumble for protecting me from clothespin guy. Keep in mind that I’m dating from a place where finding someone would be a nice to have, not a need to have. I’m fortunate because other than wanting to spend time with a remarkable human, all of my bases are covered. I can support myself. I have two kids so I don’t worry about any ticking clocks. I have a great support network that provides everything I need but for sex and for sex, I have dating apps. I say this because I know dating is a much different experience for those who are really looking to find the one or at least the one to start a family with.
So today, dating is fun. It’s a nice toe dip into the possibility of what it might feel like to find a great person, someone who would stick by me through another giant rut in the road. Mind you, my post-cancer treatment self didn’t always feel this way about dating. It took me a year guys and gals—because we always want a timeline for normal and no one will ever fucking give us one—before I could even entertain dating. The first time I stepped into the dating world following treatment, I thought it was fun for a fraction of a second, maybe a literal day, before it hurled me into a depression. This was about fifteen months after my diagnosis and five months after I finished radiation. Just like now, I got on Bumble and started swiping. For a second, I was flattered that men still found me attractive. But then I had to start conversations. How do you flirt with someone when you feel like a freak? How do you answer questions like what do you do in your free time or what do you do for a living when the answers seem out of reach? Yes, just like before cancer I am a writer who enjoys hiking, traveling, yoga and spending time with friends and family. But unlike before cancer, each of those activities and my reasons for doing them have either completely changed or been enhanced in an indescribable way. When I first tried dating after cancer, I felt unsure of myself, disconnected from other people and insecure about my whole self, inside and out. Because I still had a port, this crazy curly short red chemo hair and no breasts, I couldn’t rely on my physical person to connect with other people. Before cancer I was a somewhat mature oak tree. After cancer, I emerged, a new shoot next to a pile of sawdust. Unknown, refreshed, vulnerable, curious and shell shocked.
My first flirtation with dating was short lived. First, because I was at a complete loss as to what to say to start a conversation. Second, because I was devastated that for the first time in my life, I was going to have to work on the things that hide behind youth and beauty. The thought there was: “if your outside is a fraction of what used to be, your inside better be perfect.” All of my relationship flaws—fear of commitment, a death grip on independence, a compulsion to push away—had to be acknowledged and decided upon. Are these things I choose to bring with me into this new identity or do I let them go? My answer was let them go, which led to another crushing depression because it tacked even more time onto feeling better, being normal.
Once I dropped that first flirtation with Bumble, I started digging into some pretty deep spaces. Why am I so afraid of commitment? Because all I’ve ever known of love is pain. Why was I so worried past partners would stop loving me? Because I didn’t love myself. Why is sex always an issue in my relationships? Maybe monogamy isn’t for me. I had to look at these things because when you don’t have a choice but to rebuild your identity, you can really take the time to examine and question its previous parts and pieces. As difficult as this was to do—and it really sucked, I spent many an hour crying, wondering how I could ever climb that great big hill of human connection ever again—I’m really glad I did it.
While dating is kind of entertaining right now, I’m about a universe away from merging sex (more on that later) and intimacy. How do you become intimate with someone after cancer? The person I’m sort of dating in person is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, but there’s dissonance between my feelings for him and my attraction to him. I think this is self-preservation. After being emotionally dumped on your ass by your partner during cancer, it’s pretty freaking hard to think anyone will love all of you, right? As much as I worry about this, I also understand that hopefully if I keep trying, love will feel like dating. Horrifying at first. Then maybe kind of funny. Then maybe interesting. Possibly intriguing. And finally, forever lasting? I might be doing this two steps forward three back progression for a few years, but there is absolutely no way that I will settle ever again. Cancer broke me down and, thanks to the hard work of myself and family and friends, I’ve been put together. While I may not fully recognize “Ivy, Writer at Ask” on Bumble, I do respect her and will work tirelessly to find her an excellent partner or hold her gently when she decides she’s best alone.
About the Author:
Within three short years, I lost a husband to suicide; got pregnant with twins; lived in the hospital for six weeks with my premature babies; was diagnosed with postpartum depression; spent more than a year in treatment for breast cancer; and left a toxic relationship. It is my hope that by sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of these experiences through writing, I can help others feel less alone in their pain.
I have ghostwritten dozens of books for CEOs and have been published in dozens of newspapers and magazines. I live in Fort Collins, Colorado with my twin two-year-old sons.
Read Ivy’s blog posts, books and more at www.ivyhughes.com/blog.