I am in a support group of young breast cancer survivors. For the most part, we are all in our 20s and 30s and have a significantly different view on cancer than our older, but equal, survivor sister counterparts that are 40 and above. A decent amount of these beautiful young women have husbands and families and they were their source of strength and courage during their battles. A number of us, however, are single and have to face the inevitable truth that we have to find our husbands (or, let’s get real, even a date) post-breast cancer and, for many of us, post-mastectomy. This post is specifically for them–to put a rather uncomfortable subject out there because so many of my survivor-friends face these same challenges, and I want them to know they are not alone.
When I was first diagnosed and during and after all of my treatment I was dating someone. I had met him in law school and we dated for three years before I was diagnosed and during and beyond my battle with breast cancer. Unfortunately, last fall, we realized that we were just not the perfect fit and we went our separate ways.
A good friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after I was and I was, therefore, the guinea pig in our relationship. I would go through a particular phase of treatment right before she would so I would tell her all the horror stories of what to prepare for and expect. I remember one night we were talking on the phone about hair loss and laxatives (you know, typical girl stuff) and she got really quiet. This is unlike either of us, so I asked her what was wrong. She responded in a quiet, shaky voice, “Abby, what guy is going to want to marry me after having a mastectomy?” I responded enthusiastically and unwaveringly, “Ummmm any guy who is WORTH IT!! If some guy doesn’t want to get to know you or marry wonderful YOU based on a few scars then he is not worth the time of day!” I meant this whole-heartedly. At the time I was still with the guy I had been with before breast cancer so I was not in the same place as she was. I figured I would never have to know how it felt to be single after a mastectomy, but still I meant what I told her with all of my heart.
Fast-forward ten months and there I was single and crying to my sister on the phone one day, “What guy is going to want to marry me with these scars?” And she responded with the same Beyonce-like tone I used with my friend, “Ummmm any guy who is WORTH IT!! If some guy doesn’t want to get to know you or marry wonderful YOU based on a few scars then he is not worth the time of day!” I found comfort in this, but continued to refuse to date or even really look in the direction of anyone belonging to the male category for the next nine months. Besides the whole I-have-scars-across-my-chest thing, after treatment for breast cancer you feel much less like a woman and much more like a hairless, prepubescent, eleven year old boy. Your hair is growing back in a weird, confusing way; you aren’t in good shape; you are mushy where you used to be toned; you have been through a war and it shows.
So, for the next nine months, I was determined to return at least to a girl-like state. I wanted to resemble a female again. So, I hit the gym religiously. Seriously guys, maybe a tad too religiously. I had a really bad stress fracture in my foot and my doctor told me not to run on it for the next three to four weeks…I hit the treadmill the next day. After going through breast cancer, when someone tells you to slow down you just kind of laugh to yourself because you know you aren’t going to follow those instructions. You had to be at a standstill for a year of your life during treatment while people pumped your body with poison and cut off your breasts, so yeah you aren’t slowing down unless someone literally ties you down, but you would probably just bust free from that anyway like the Hulk when he gets irritated.
When I started to feel a little more like a female, I noticed that my hair was actually long enough for a real haircut and I got a bob. It was one of the most glorious days of my life. I walked, wait, no, I strutted out of the salon after getting my first haircut in one and a half years feeling like Jennifer-freaking-Aniston. It was like “Extreme Makeover” up in Baltimore. I went in there looking like someone who had lived under a rock for twelve years and came out looking like Giselle. Ok, maybe not that great, but I felt pretty confident. There was no limit to what I could do after this haircut. At long last, I am woman AGAIN, hear me roar.
The whole dating thing was still extremely low on my list of priorities, but lo and behold the day came…I was asked out on a real official date by a real official member of the male species. It had taken me over nine months to gain the emotional capacity to accept a date with a boy, but I did it and the date was set. I figured it would be fine. It is not like he would ask about my scars on the first date, right?! We would probably just talk about the weather and discuss our favorite type of candy—boy was I wrong.
He asked to meet up for frozen yogurt. That seemed harmless enough! If he was terrible or a woman disguised as a man, it would only take up less than an hour of my time. We had been emailing back and forth when the first red flag arose. He asked me about my incisions from my surgery. He actually asked me how bad they were. My heart absolutely sank. We had not even met up yet and he already wanted to know about my scars. I held back tears and responded to his inquiry acting like “Hey this is no big deal that you are belittling me to a scar after everything I have been through. Sure, this is totally normal and acceptable in society.” But, deep down inside, I knew that this would not end well, but yet I still met up with him. I am not sure if I just wanted to show off my incredible new haircut or what, but I stupidly proceeded. Within five minutes of meeting him he saw my port scar. I wear things all the time that show my port scar because, honestly, I have completely forgotten that it is even there. It is a part of me now. It isn’t a scar, it is a story, about how something wanted to kill me but I am just so much stronger than it that I KILLED IT. Boom. Power to the people.
I saw his eyes land on my port scar, we had not even gotten the frozen yogurt yet, and he said, “Oh! Is this the only scar you have!?” With this tone in his voice like “Oh please, dear God, let this be the only scar you have.” It took everything I had in my small frame to not vomit and cry all over him when he asked me that question. The very first guy I go out with after breast cancer and THIS is what he asks within the first five minutes of meeting me?!?! Is this some weird new reality show that Howie Mandel is hosting or something? And, if so, where is the nearest exit? In a defeated tone I told him, “No, this is not the only scar I have. This is from my port. Do you know what that is?” Of course he didn’t know what a port is because he had not been through what I had. He did not understand that I am more than a girl with scars, but I am someone he will never have the opportunity to get to know because he does not have the capacity to ever understand the advantages of dating someone who has been through what I have. (Email me and I will gladly list off all the reasons why dating a cancer survivor is optimal.)
Needless to say, I am back on boy hiatus. Dating after breast cancer is one of the most emotionally traumatizing things I have ever been through (and I have been through a lot!). Many of my young single survivor-sisters report that they feel the same way. And, yes, at the end of the day, the right guy won’t care. The right guy will be totally blown away by my ability to make any situation the best moment of his life because cancer has taught me how to appreciate life that much and how to show others how to do the same.