October 11, 2012

Dating as a Cancer Survivor


I recently wrote a heartfelt essay about living alone and the merits, both personally and culturally, of singleness and the space it provides. That article was published on a Friday at TheHighCalling.org. I responded to comments that day, interacted with friends who read the article, and continued to think about the very full life I have as a long-term single woman.

The next day, however, on a Saturday night, I signed up for an online dating service. As much as I love living alone, I still also want the opportunity to share my life with someone, to entangle all of my history with someone else’s, not to mention my laundry.

Putting myself in a position to begin dating was not just a matter of choosing a possible marriage over a possible single life. An even more impossible barrier was a medical history that had left me convinced I would never marry: I am a cancer survivor. And though it’s been five years now, and my doctor has given me great hope for the future, I almost chose loneliness over the fear of having to share that story with someone.

Though I would love to see cancer as something that is just part of my past, cancer will always be part of my present, will always be a possibility for my future, even if I never have another occurrence. For people who’ve never had cancer, it’s probably hard to imagine the mental prison this disease brings to its victims. But to me, inviting someone to share that life sentence seemed selfish.

But an odd thing has happened over the last five years; it’s something I have written about often in this space. Though there have been bumps in the road, one day continues to follow the next. First the weeks added up, then the months. Eventually, years started separating me and my diagnosis. I worked full-time – sometimes more than that; I went on missions trips and traveled to see family; I made personal and professional goals; I even began making plans for the future. But always alone.

Signing up to meet someone online felt a little like taking my life into my own hands, or rather taking my life out of God’s hands. I had done that before as a single woman, basically saying to the Lord, if you’re not going to do something about this, I am. That was five years ago, just before my diagnosis, and that man was the one who walked away when things got difficult.

I hardly blame him.

I did blame God for a while. But eventually, when I understood the desperation I had arrived at over getting married, and how I was clinging so hard to a relationship that was bad for me, I understood that I had only myself to blame.

It might sound harsh, and I would never say this to anyone but myself, but I now think cancer might have been God’s protection for me, protecting me from a bad relationship, from an even worse marriage, and from my own self.

This time as I thought about trying to date again, I decided I would not take matters into my own hands. True, it was my fingers that typed up the profile and submitted a very realistic picture of myself. I am the one that felt nervous and insecure when matches started popping up with men who were looking for their soul mates. But I breathed deeply, committed to not making the same mistakes as I did before, and told Jesus that I only wanted His best, His man. And this time I meant it.

I don’t think I could have taken this step if it weren’t for my doctor’s positive outlook. “I know this is hard to believe with everything you’ve been through,” he told me last May. “But I don’t think there’s any reason to think the cancer is coming back.”

“Really?” I asked, wanting to believe it.

He ran through the history, talked about the statistics, reiterated his opinion. I told him that I wouldn’t hold it against him if I did have a recurrence. Then, I left, trying to figure out how to live a life AC – after cancer.

Within 24 hours of creating my online dating profile, one of the men who expressed interest caught my eye. Even as we started emailing back and forth, I knew I would eventually have to tell him about the cancer. I did some research online to see what others were saying about when that should happen. I talked with friends. Eventually, I decided I should give it some time and wait a while to see where the relationship was going before doing the hard, stressful work of bearing my soul.

The problem was I no longer knew how to tell my story without mentioning cancer. When I tried to tell him about myself, my life sounded awkward, tragic, and mysterious. Eventually, he just flat out asked me what had happened to me in the last few years that I was trying so hard to avoid.

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen if I told him about cancer, but I had determined from the beginning that I wouldn’t lie. So, since we were still just emailing and hadn’t even met, I wrote the story of my cancer as simply and factually as I could, including the good prognosis from my doctor as well as my fear of the future. When I hit “send,” I prayed that the Lord would protect my heart, and his.

As it turns out, most people who are dating at my age have a back story—a tragic, mysterious past that doesn’t sound quite so horrible when you say it out loud, even if it has nothing to do with cancer. After I told him mine, he told me his. Neither of us felt too overwhelmed to continue.

Dating as a cancer survivor, even with my medical history out in the open, isn’t easy. Check-ups seem even more stressful because I have more to lose with a recurrence, especially when I think of the three boys I have come to love. Telling him I can’t have children of my own seemed like admitting I’m not really whole. I wonder how much I should talk about my fears, and I imagine the day when he will see my scars.

And it can’t be easy dating a cancer survivor, either.

But five months later, choosing loneliness no longer seems like an option. For either of us. 

Photo by Bubble Fishh, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.
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