The following is an excerpt from From Cocktails to Chemotherapy: A Guide to Navigating Cancer in Your 30s by Meredith Goldberg.
Dating is hard no matter how many ways you look at it. Add to the mix the stress of having just gone through an illness — that doesn't make it any easier. Of course, I wasn't in a rush to get back out there; part of me was still regrouping from the end of my last relationship, which I never really had a chance to properly recover from. Note: by "properly recover," I mean that I didn't have enough time to make my fair share of stupid dating mistakes and have lots of one night stands. My relationship ended in February 2010 and I was diagnosed in August 2010 so there really wasn't a lot of "me" time before cancer took over my datebook.
Once I was done radiating in June 2011, part of me knew that I should start getting out there, I should be dating again, and in a half attempt, I joined a dating website, but would delete most messages for any would-be suitors. I just wasn't into it. As much as I wanted to be, I found it hard to take it seriously. Dating, as many of us know, is kind of like looking for a job. You need to be persistent, you need to be open to rejection and you need to willing to look outside of your comfort zone, since some of the best jobs and partners are lurking where you'd never expect them to be. But at that point, I was not only trying to recuperate my energy, but also couldn't take anything seriously. On top of that, my feelings on dating and marriage and the whole "happily ever after" myth had shifted dramatically.
I was and will probably be a romantic first and foremost. I love the idea of love, don't get me wrong, but there's something about a failed attempt at marriage that makes you stop and revisit the practicality of it all. Why does one HAVE to get married? Why do you HAVE to have children? I had spent so much of my teen years and early 20s fixated on my search for this great love that somewhere along the lines I think I had forgotten to love myself first and that's a lot of what I learned with my therapist. Will I ever regret the two plus years I spent with my ex, the vacations, the engagement, the horrific breakup? Never. Because it opened me up to a new way of looking at dating. So did having cancer, believe it or not.
I think that when you're single and going through an illness like breast cancer, you learn more about your own body and what it needs than anyone will ever really understand. Somewhere along the way, the mental and the physical become aligned. While I used to be someone that looked for someone to always take care of me, I no longer felt I needed or wanted that. I knew that I could take care of myself, even when I was really at my lowest, and that experience made dating a lot different . . . at least it did for me. There was a lot less I was willing to put up with, particularly insecurities and idiosyncrasies that I no longer found "cute" or "endearing." As much as I decided that for the time being I didn't mind being single, my friends (who are all married, many with children) pleaded a different case.
"Just find someone cool we can hang out with, you owe us someone great," they complained.
I finally relented and started to take the whole online dating thing with a bigger grain of salt. I began taking my online dating process almost as seriously as I was taking my job search. The sheer awkwardness of meeting a total stranger face to face for the first time after exchanging snarky emails and text messages is enough to fill a novel. You always have a certain image in your head of what someone is going to look like and, in my experience, it's never right. For instance, one of my first dates, upon smiling, revealed a mouth of classic metal braces. Really?
My war stories about dating are, on the surface, no different from any other woman's plight to find the perfect guy. But the one question that you always get asked on a first date, especially in Washington DC, tended to lead me down a line of questioning that most people would warn never to talk about on a first date with a total stranger. For me this conversation was always make or break.
"So, what do you do?" they would ask as I slowly sipped on a glass of white wine.
"Well, I'm sort of a marketing consultant/writer," I'd explain. Sip, sip.
"Where do you work?"
"From home, at the moment."
And as most men would look at me quizzically, I would feel the instant need to reveal my big secret since there seems to be no way in hell that anyone that lives in Washington DC could possibly do anything other than work for the government.
"I'm actually looking for a job at the moment."
"Oh you got laid off?" A common question in 2011.
And it was usually at this point where I would share my tale of the past year. There was kind of no way of getting around it (though I think that many people would beg to differ). Why would I tell this acutely vulnerable story on a first date to a total stranger? Why would I talk about being diagnosed with breast cancer, of going through chemotherapy, radiation and freezing my hair? Well, to me, this story is who I am now, like it or not. It would come out sooner or later, so I figured why not get it out of the way sooner? Especially if the guy seemed like good news.
As I would share my tale with numerous dates, I always laughed because most people wouldn't believe me if I wasn't standing there talking about it. I had managed to turn my cancer into a one woman comedic tour, which was a coping mechanism I'm sure, but I constantly felt the need to assure my dates that I was 100 percent fine and would not keel over and spill my drink in their lap.
Once I told my story, almost every man that I've met since my diagnosis would immediately look down at my chest to see what I'm working with these days.
"They're real," I would respond to their downward gaze.
"Oh I wasn't . . ."
"Yes, you were, and it's OK."
Technically, I wasn't lying to these men. My breasts are real, but this point in the conversation typically let me know whether or not I was going to be ordering a second glass of wine. In addition to knowing that I was looking for someone who I'm compatible with, I also knew it was crucial to find someone who wasn't going to start looking at me like I am some kind of Make-A-Wish recipient. And sure, I received a variety of responses once I was done telling my story, but most men surprisingly made the cut. I remember one man in particular that responded to me by saying, "Wow, I should really play with my balls more." Actually.
Getting through any first date is tricky, but for me, it was what came after that was most confusing for me, especially considering that I was still a work in progress a year plus after surgery. I wasn't a year out of chemotherapy yet, meaning that I was still down one nipple since they don't replace it until you are a year out of chemo and radiation. In short, getting physical gave me way more anxiety than it ever had during my adult life. I had gotten used to having my breasts constantly examined by a slew of doctors, even if it was always a bit surreal. But having a lover do the same is a completely different story.
There were those mid-make out session explanations I would give about why I wouldn't be completely topless, which were occasionally fueled by white wine. Typically, I'd then constantly replay the interaction in my mind, wondering whether or not I handled the situation well, and whether or not I'd ever see this person again. As much as I had spent the time working on myself and being secure in my new body, I had no control over what people I dated thought about it, and the lack of control was enough to drive me crazy. Sure, I was used to staring in the mirror at a mismatched top half, but no one else was obliged to do the same. They could move on and find someone who was complete.
There's one conversation that I had had in particular that will probably always stick with me. This guy made dating seem easy, like the way it should have always been. Not complicated. I like you, you like me; let's date and see what happens. Let's spend time together, and it just kind of was.
Sometime after three or four months of casually dating each other, I got a text from him: "So when do I get to see your boobs?" he asked. I told him that the right one was up for grabs whenever he wanted, but that, of course was not good enough (because why would it be for any man?). "Both or nothing," he replied. I tried to reiterate that my body was kind of a work in progress, to which he responded, "You think I'm going to judge you on a scar?" And the truth was simple: yes, I did. But how do you say that in a text message without sounding super insecure? In fact, I wasn't exactly insecure; it's not like I took a knife to myself and decided to carve up my body. This was the hand I was dealt. But there was still a part of me that didn't know how people would react, and that scared me. Sure, the guys that I dated knew right off the bat that I had cancer, but having that conversation is the easy part. Once I got that out of the way and determined whether or not they would be able just to handle that part, the technicalities of every other aspect came into play.
That day, I stared at the phone, trying to figure out how to answer. There was no response that made sense to me other than, "How about next time I just show you?" He agreed and I started to panic — that is, for a good ten minutes until I realized that it didn't matter. If he saw me topless and couldn't handle it, then you know what? He would never be worth my time.
Two weeks later, we found ourselves in my apartment, talking yet again about my boobs and I had to just 'rip the band-aid off' and tell him the truth of what was being hidden underneath my $100 bras from Bloomies.
"Look, the right side, is totally normal, see," I said as I flashed him my right side. "My left side is a little, um, different." I paused to take a large sip of wine.
He looked at me, waiting for me to continue.
"I don't have a nipple. They take it away from you when you get reconstruction and I haven't exactly gotten it back yet."
His head cocked to the side for a minute and said, "Really?"
My stomach sunk a little. What would he do next? Would he put his glass of wine down and leave? Would he ask to see it? I really was kind of wandering into unchartered territory here and wasn't sure what was going to happen next.
"I'm going to tell you a story about when I was in the Army," he began and proceeded to tell me a pretty gruesome story about the Middle East and a gunshot victim that he had come across while over there.
"So, if you think that I'm going to judge you or not like you anymore because of a scar then you are f*cking crazy."
I exhaled, not realizing that I had been holding my breath. "OK," I replied. "OK."
It was the perfect answer to an insanely scary conversation that I knew I'd eventually have to have when I found someone that was worth my time. Well, he was worth the conversation. It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to keep him around because a conversation like that does not always end well and this one did. But the good guys, the ones that are worth it, don't care because they already like you for who you are.