If You Think 'Normal' Dating Is Hard, Try Dating After Cancer

It's hard, but it's not impossible. If you're thinking about dating during and after treatment, don't let cancer hold you back.

When it comes to dating, everyone has their quirks. Usually it takes a few dates before you find out about a secret anime obsession, a messy apartment, or a complicated past relationship with an ex. But dating during and after cancer has its own challenges. Add a heart transplant and prosthetic leg into the mix, and things can get especially interesting.

As a 16-year-old high school senior, I had a sudden, massive heart attack with no prior health problems and wasn't expected to live through the night. I waited nine months to receive a life-saving heart transplant. Three months later, as a freshman at Princeton University, I had to figure out the most nonchalant way to tell my new friends and occasional crushes all of this, and that "oh, by the way, I also have an above knee leg amputation."

I'd already made the decision to be open about my story in the media, in the campus newspaper, and through my public speaking/advocacy, but getting to know someone on a one-to-one, intimate level was different. At first, some guys thought the heart transplant made me fragile. Once I assured them that I wasn't going to die in five years, I found that if I wasn't awkward about it, neither were they. My heart transplant scar made me a warrior, my boyfriend told me at the time. I still consider it a badge of honor. If anything, I sometimes had to be careful that guys didn't want to date me just because they were in awe of what I'd been through. It was important to me to tell them what happened, to help them understand why I tried to squeeze as much as I could into each day. But once it was out in the open, we needed to be able to move beyond it so that they could know me as a person.

Telling them I had cancer was a different story. I felt a lump on my neck the summer after my freshman year, which turned out to be non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (diffuse Large B-Cell). By the time I was picking up the keys to my sophomore year dorm room, I'd finished my first round of chemo and could barely speak above a whisper because the cancer had spread to my throat. While I continued to be open about my other medical history, I decided to only tell my closest friends about the cancer. I was still recovering from the idea that I could die. I didn't want anyone else thinking that when they looked at me.

The first day I wore my wig, I was convinced that everyone knew. But surprisingly, even some friends who knew I was going through treatment would say, "At least you didn't lose your hair!" I didn't tell my Winter Formals date, hoping he'd notice my dance moves more than my penciled on eyebrows and the extra eyeliner I'd applied to make up for my missing eyelashes. I mostly kept guys at a friendly distance until the spring, when I'd finished my outpatient treatment and was in remission. I'd always make sure to tell them about the transplant/artificial leg before we got back to my room, before I revealed my punk rock pixie short hair. One guy told me that his mother had died of cancer, and the next day we nodded at each other awkwardly across the cafeteria. Maybe it was too real, too close. But none of the others seemed to mind. They weren't looking for anything serious, and neither was I.

Like most of my friends, I waited until after college to start dating more seriously in New York City. At 25, my non-Hodgkin returned as Burkitt's lymphoma. During my eight months of treatment, I was out of the hospital one week each month, and I made the most of it. Dating helped me pretend life was normal, even when it wasn't. Guys flirted with me at parties with my friends, and for a moment, I could forget that I'd be checking back in the hospital in a few days. I was strategic in scheduling first dates and was careful not to let them touch my "hair." There are many stories, but many of these dates didn't progress to the point at which I would have told them about my cancer, so it didn't wasn't a big issue at the time.

Now that I've been in remission for eight years, I'm still very public about my story –including my cancer survival - and sharing it to help others. I'm proud of what I've overcome, and my life is refreshingly "normal," but dating is still a careful dance. At times it's a struggle because I don't want to feel like I'm hiding anything, and yet, I have to remind myself that hearing about one of these health "bumps" can be a lot to process when you're first getting to know someone, let alone a heart attack, heart transplant, leg amputation, and two bouts of cancer. In my next blog installment, I'll talk about some of the approaches I've found effective in figuring out when and how to tell a date about cancer and other health issues.

Not everyone feels up to dating during cancer treatment. Many of us have been through those times when we feel tired, achy, and afraid to look in the mirror. I've found it's important to give yourself and your body the permission to rest when you need it, and not to beat yourself up about it when you do.

At the same time, if you're thinking about dating during and after treatment, don't let cancer hold you back. I've found chemistry with people at unexpected times and places, both in and out of the hospital. Whether it was fleeting or developed into something more serious, it made me feel wanted, and loved, like my old self again. And when I felt sick, or angry, or frustrated about treatment or being stuck in the hospital, I could draw on the memories of the connections I'd made, and remind myself that even the darkest moments in life are temporary, and that there would be good times ahead.

Do you have any tips for dating after cancer? Share them in the comments below!

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