A friend in law school once said that while many men are built to be monogamous but desire to be a serial dater, I was built to be a serial dater but desired to be monogamous. And in those days that was true. So when cancer came, I was 31 years old and single. Never married and no children. By the time I was told I was in remission, my whole perspective had changed.
I dated throughout having testicular cancer. If anything, it was a good distraction. At times during treatment, cancer felt really lonely and I didn’t know if anyone would ever understand me. But, I continued. While this article directly give lessons, I’ll tell you what I learned from each girl and maybe you can glean some wisdom from my retelling.
Girl#1: “Doctor Feelgood”
We met online. Texted. I told her about my large grapefruit-like testicle before I was told I had advanced testicular cancer. We flirted throughout the eight hour emergency room visit that resulted in my diagnosis. She was trained as a therapist which is the most memorable part about this. The day that I had my first chemotherapy session she told me to never contact again. Doctor or not, she was just wasn’t prepared for the journey. And that’s okay because not everybody is prepared for the journey even the people you would most expect to be including women that are specifically trained to deal with emotions. I felt like a freak after this girl. An untouchable burning with a dark disease, but I continued.
Girl #2: “The Complainer”
We had gone on a few very good dates about a year earlier. She texted me about two weeks into treatment. By this point in time, I had lost my testicle, had thrown up a few times, and was bald. We went on one date at the end of summer. The day my second week of full chemo ended, we sat in a little coffee shop and held hands. “73 percent odds survival,” she kept saying “That’s not that bad at all.” Repeating a mantra to give herself strength. We just kissed over her car. There were fireworks in the distance. I fell asleep in a nursing home room that day watching my grandfather take his last breaths. He was slowly dying. Like his house was a body and somebody was moving from room to room turning off the lights. My grandpa died the next day and I blacked out from exhaustion at the county fair. We really liked each other and in another time, it would’ve worked out. But she kept complaining about things that just didn’t matter...like someone had spilled beer on her skirt. And I wasn’t in a place to want to listen to that. While some people choose not to go with you on the cancer, there are other people that literally can’t process all that cancer patients must weather and are instead meant to focus on the small beans of the world. I dumped her.
Girl #3: “The Fault in Her Stars”
I also met this girl online. She wanted to make me into her personal savior. She had lost her mother to cancer and The Fault in Our Stars was her favorite movie. Here is the only direct advice I will give you in this article: do not under any circumstance watch The Fault in Our Stars while you are in the middle of chemotherapy. This whole thing felt less romantic and more like I was being treated as if by having cancer I gave off some kind of lost saint glow. Eventually this girl revealed to me that she had been dating another fellow as well all along and wished to pursue that relationship. That’s okay. When you have cancer, you’re not a good romantic investment. Add in all of the usual uncertainty about the longevity of a relationship with the fact that this time it’s not even certain if you’re going to live. At this point, I really felt like my life was going down a dark road. I had sacrificed my personal life and everything else the previous three years so that I could graduate law school and one day have the ability to fully support and provide for a family. But my work education and job experience were cancelled out by the fact that I had caught a disease due to no attributable fault of my own and was most likely left sterile.
Girl #4: “Meatloaf”
Yet another online girl. (Maybe online date is a tip too?) At the end of my third session of chemo, we went on a date to a small town bar where we danced to a jukebox playing Willie Nelson. We kissed. I could tell that she liked me a lot because she started to really unravel her emotions as we continued to talk. We made plans for a second date at her apartment. She would cook dinner. Shortly after, I finished my last full week of chemotherapy and on a quiet Saturday night ended up collapsed on the floor due to dehydration. I was hospitalized for a few days during which time the girl texted me that we shouldn’t see other again. No explanation. I knew why, though, and I didn’t blame her. Dating someone sick with cancer is rough and if you don’t know the person, it’s easier to just walk away when things get it hard than it is to remain committed.
Girl #5: “Rain”
This one was an online girl with a bit of a twist. She lived nowhere near Pittsburgh and we communicated just through Skype. She was a teacher who lived in a quiet southern town in a condo full of cats. I envied her for her simple life. She hadn’t dated in many years. One night we talked much longer than we ever had. She liked me a lot, but getting close to someone regardless of cancer made her uneasy and she couldn’t be what she thought I needed. I’m not sure what I needed in those days. It was before I had a 14 hour surgery where my guts were placed on my chest. I slept each night with my obituary that I had written on my dresser and a handful of rosaries in my hand. I’ve continued to remain friends with this girl, which makes me happy.
And then: Valerie
And then, at the end of the trail: scarred, beaten up, and emotionally deflated, my life changed. After I had finished my last session of chemotherapy and before my last surgery, I met Valerie. We met on a post for a true crime podcast’s Facebook page. The post was designed for members of the page to show off serious scars. Valerie posted a picture of a scar received during a kidney transplant she had performed in the early 2000’s. I thought a woman with scars like that would understand my situation and all that I had seen in the last year. Nobody else had understood me. Maybe she would.
Valerie and I started messaging back and forth on Facebook. Then texting. Then phone calls. Our second date was the night before a fifteen hour surgery where the doctors essentially took out my guts from my stomach to remove my lymph nodes. We became really close. During the four days I was in the hospital after the surgery, she used to stay overnight in the hospital with me during her free time.
A couple months later, Valerie and I were living together in a cramped little apartment in the hills of Pittsburgh. It was really hard coming back to life after surgery and looking back a year later, I can tell now that I very certainly had post traumatic stress disorder. But, I hung on. And Valerie supported me every step of the way.
A couple times that winter, Valerie would walk into the room to find me collapsed on the floor. I was skeleton thin, but still too heavy for her to lift so she would lie right beside me on the floor. It was hard to believe in much then. We believed in each other.
A few days after my one year remission mark, Valerie started getting nauseous and was very tired all the time. The next day she was still nauseas and tired. We didn’t know it was. We figured it was a cold or the flu or something from which Valerie would quickly bounce back. A few days later, she came home from work with her cheeks were inflated. I took her to the hospital, and eight hours later a doctor walked into her hospital room and said that Valerie’s kidney had failed again and that she would need to go on dialysis again until she had a transplant. I didn’t know what to do. I loved her, and I knew that I never would even consider leaving.
The thing is, I don’t think any of us could have imagined the irony. Here I am, the cancer patient, who was a last place bet not too very long ago, calling Valerie’s parents at 4 am on a Tuesday to tell them her kidney was failing. And the whole time we’re stuck in the only spare room in the ER which is used as a psychiatric evaluation booth and has one large with a smaller door in the middle.
Valerie was in the hospital a week and a half. I slept in a chair besides Valerie’s bed the whole time. In my days on the cancer ward, I had spent many nights alone unable to have anyone run even the smallest chore. I would run errands all day for her. I would sit and argue with her doctors. I would hold her hand. We’d lived with death in our room for so long that I realized from now on even when we think we’re safe, it still might coming. So I wanted to make her life the best that it possibly could.
Three times a week now, I take her to dialysis and we sit in the dialysis clinic as she blood gets siphoned out of her through tubes in her chest. We always look around us. The only time I see another couple with the man taking care of the wife, they’re eighty. We’re thirty. And because we’re so young, we often have to deal with people all the time who think it’s our own fault we caught our diseases. People who think we’re losers. People who want to count us down and out. Like we’re freaks. So we wait. We wait for the nights when the world stops running and I can finally put my head on Valerie’s chest opposite the side of her catheter and listen to her heart beat. If I hadn’t had cancer, I wouldn’t have known slow and steady love. We are so damned. We are so beautifully broken.
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