Wednesday 4 November, 2020

How do I do Relationships and Cancer?

“Don’t tell them right away,” said my close friend, Steve. “You look normal—completely normal.”

It’s true. I do look normal. I am the exact same person on the outside as I was before my cancer diagnosis in February 2020 (except for a giant scar running from my sternum to groin, and for the 20 pounds I’ve lost since surgery). Despite being metastatic—aka Stage 4—I have no symptoms from the disease or side effects from any treatments. Neuroendocrine cancer is rare, and different. But it’s still cancer.

Steve and I had been discussing how I should go about dating in my new reality. Before my diagnosis, the idea of starting over from a broken heart had never bothered me too much. Sure, the emotional fallout would hurt for a while—sometimes incredibly so—and I would need to grieve and heal; but I was young, educated, and enjoyed a successful career. No matter how low I felt, the future always seemed bright. But when my fiancé left me during my first year fighting cancer, I was struck with existential dread about finding love again.

At first, it seemed easy enough to sign up for a dating app or three. But I couldn’t shake the nagging hesitations and questions addling my brain: Did I now carry too much baggage? Would anyone want to commit to a future uncertain but for the surety of appointments, tests, and treatments? Was I even a whole person anymore?

This was new territory for me. I’d never questioned myself like this before, always brimming with confidence and excitement to put myself out there. I have never dated with cancer. My ex-fiancé had been there from the beginning. We had faced the diagnosis together, still sure of our future together, and I never gave a single thought to what life with cancer would be like without her.

After the breakup, I did what most of us do when we seek validation, or answers to our introspective crises: I googled it. And I found lots of people asking the same questions and sharing the same fears. Reading similar stories and relating to similar strife didn’t help me too much, and I became despondent. (I read an opinion article written by the late Josie Rubio for the New York Times titled Dating While Dying, and you should, too. Josie sadly passed away a very short time after her article was published).

If I’m scared about this, I know there are many others with cancer who are, too.

For a while, I struggled with feelings of abandonment and anger towards my ex for giving up. Coupled with the seeming futility of a romantic future, my headspace didn’t get any better. It grew worse.

But then I read a book by Mark Manson titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. In the midst of his wonderfully digestible advice about shifting values and approaching life from a place of security, honesty, and freedom from irrelevant conflict and tension, Mark talks about taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life. He draws the line between fault and responsibility and advocates for taking control of your feelings about situations—becoming responsible for them no matter whose fault they might be.

This made sense to me. I could wallow in self-pity about being forever inflicted with an incurable but treatable chronic disease, or I could push forward. I could give a fuck, as Manson would put it, about what others might think or how they might react to having the C-bomb dropped on them, or I could simply accept I cannot control that result and endeavour on.

(A note about Mark Manson: I am aware his work springs concerns about objectification of women, and I myself found some of his anecdotes to be offside; however, I am choosing to focus on the thematic premise of his book, which is releasing inhibitions with respect to fear and rejection and to embrace uncertainty).

Having shored up my resolve, I took the plunge. Hello Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder—here I am. But, right away, I struggled with more than your average dating bear. Not only did I agonize over decisions regarding pictures and profile, I was also faced with a question for which I had no answer: When, and how, exactly, do I drop that C-bomb?

Do I add the cute picture of me in front of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and let them draw their own conclusions? Do I take a page from Josie’s book and hit them with it right away on my profile? (“I have cancer, so if you want to hang out, act now!”)  Do I tell them after we match, when we’re forging a mutual interest? On the first date? The third? How do I tell them my cancer is incurable, but treatable, and the surgery I had was so aggressive and novel that there is no longitudinal data to give me a prognosis, and that I don’t exactly know how long I have? My surgeon said he fully expects me to be here in ten years. What about fifteen? Twenty?

If I have doubts about this, I know there are many others with cancer who do, too.

I am not an expert by any means. This is as new to me as it is to you. But one thing I can think I can offer is the perspective of security and absolute confidence. I am not scared of rejection. I am not scared of being ghosted after revealing my cancer. (This has already happened to me several times). When my first scheduled date since the breakup bailed 30 minutes beforehand because she could not, in fact, handle the cancer, I wished her well and moved on.

When I discussed this with my therapist, she seemed almost taken aback. From her perspective, I learned, many of her clients—primarily women, lots of them young, with breast cancer—expressed many of the same doubts and fears I’ve talked about. She said she wished she had a place to send her patients—to a blog, or a book—where they could relate, and where hope could be fostered. And just like that, an idea was born.

Thus far in my dating adventures, I have been sincere and honest, and I’ve already had many experiences worth sharing. So that’s what I’m here to do: tell you what’s working for me and what isn’t, and maybe share a happy story or two along the way.

Follow Asher’s (@dybsy) experience with cancer and dating – download the War On Cancer App below and follow @dybsy.

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