“Does this mean I have to be celibate for a year?” I mused to my sister shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis in early 2012. As a recently-single 30-year-old, I wondered what implications cancer would have on my love life. OkCupid has a lot of search criteria to help you find your ideal match, but I was pretty sure “cancer survivor” wasn’t one of them.
In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, my single status fell to the backburner as I tried to navigate the complex cancer web of surgeons, tests, and treatment plans. But as I settled into the 7-month treatment process (fertility preservation, chemo, and two surgeries), I started to consider my options when it came to dating.
Having met my last boyfriend online, I decided to reactivate my online dating profile about two months into the process. Armed with a lot of free time and a damn good wig, I figured I had nothing to lose by putting myself out there. It was actually easier than I had anticipated. Since I was bald at the time, cancer was a tangible part of my everyday reality and it didn’t make sense to hide it. Figuring that honesty was the best policy, I included a line in my profile about undergoing cancer treatment with some quip about being “a little less hairy than usual.” That way, if a potential date was freaked out by my cancer, we simply didn’t chat. It was actually a great screening mechanism. By putting it out there from the start, I was filtering out the men who didn’t want to spend time with me. I was pleasantly surprised at how many guys wanted to talk despite my cancer, or at least sent me good wishes for a quick recovery. I ended up meeting some nice people, and while I also had a few truly awful dates, those were more about being a bad fit personally than the fact that I had cancer. Such is the world of online dating– the ups and downs of that experience were somehow reassuringly normal.
Though I took a break from the dating scene after I finished treatment to manage some geographic and professional transitions (new city, new job), I’ve been actively dating now for about six months. It’s fair to say that this time around has been harder. Since my hair has grown back, I’m no longer “wearing” my cancer experience for the world to see. No one would guess that I’m a cancer survivor, barring a keen eye that might identify my port scar under my right collarbone. My dating profile says a lot about me: vegan, amateur chef, optimist, yogi, lover of puns. Absent from the list: cancer survivor.
Since I’m not leading with the cancer card anymore, I’m now faced with the decision of when to tell a potential love interest about my survivorship. I’ve taken it off my profile because it’s no longer the defining characteristic of my current experience, but also (if I’m honest) because I don’t want to scare people away before they have a chance to know me. In some ways, I liken it to other non-cancer-related health issues that come up in relationships, like sexually transmitted infections or depression. These things don’t typically show up on a dating profile, nor are they a part of first-date conversations. But when do folks talk about their sexual history and mental health? Where is that balance between revealing too much information too soon and waiting too long to disclose an essential part of yourself?
In retrospect, cancer survivorship has made me a little more guarded when it comes to dating—sure, I think, you may like me now, but you don’t know about my cancer yet. It’s tricky—I find that there’s a weird tension between wanting to share in the name of authenticity and wishing you didn’t have to in the first place. I think the outcome of the conversation has a lot to do with how at peace a survivor is with the reality of his or her own story— if I’m comfortable, my date is more likely to be comfortable. But cancer is an intimidating topic, and most people my age haven’t had to navigate cancer with their partners just yet, so there’s not a lot of precedent for how to respond to this news from someone you might want to see naked at some point.
Speaking of nudity, body image certainly comes into play here—my mastectomy scar isn’t glaring, but it’s there. Clearly, the right time for this conversation is somewhere between the first date and the moment where you see each other naked, so there’s no awkward moment of, “Surprise! One of my boobs is fake.” It’s more complicated than just parts and scars, though. While sex itself is an intimate act, it somehow feels much more vulnerable to let someone see and touch the physical evidence of my cancer experience when most of the time it’s hidden to the world at large.
Finally, there are all of the typical dating questions that come up in your 30s—kids, marriage, and the rest of the details about spending your lives together. The question of whether I want kids is complicated by my concerns about genetics and the possibility of recurrence. As for marriage, that whole “in sickness and in health, til death do us part” thing lands a little differently when you’re a survivor, as I assume it does for someone who loves that survivor. Sure, everybody is just one bad biopsy away from cancer, but recurrence is a tangible concern for me in a way that it isn’t yet for most of my 30-something friends (and potential love interests). It just lends an added weight to the possibility of long-term partnership that I didn’t anticipate when I was first diagnosed.
While I’m still working out the details of my post-cancer dating reality, the more I practice telling men about my cancer, the easier it gets to feel comfortable in my own post-cancer skin. Of course, we all bring our own personal blend of bumps and bruises (both physical and emotional) to new relationships whether we’re cancer survivors or not. The trick is to find—and be—someone who is self-aware enough to own their unique set of experiences and is present enough to see the person in front of them for who they are: a beautiful, complex human with a little bit of life mileage behind them.
Green (known outside of FD as Liz) is a thirty-something teacher, professional development coordinator, and trainer in the Washington, DC area who finds any and every excuse to soak up some sunshine. In her spare time, she can be found on the yoga mat, on a hiking trail, in a kayak, or cooking up a scrumptious vegan meal for family and friends.