I got a great question from one of my readers named Vanessa the other day about a subject that’s near and dear to my (dark, dysfunctional) heart: dating and breast cancer
“When you start dating someone,” she asked, “how do you tell the person? When do you tell them? Any advice is greatly appreciated.”
As it turns out, I was just interviewed by Judy McGuire (aka the Date Girl columnist for the Seattle Weekly) about this very topic (click here for a link). I’ve also written a reported piece about dating with breast cancer for Match.com’s online magazine Happen (here’s a link) and talked about what it was like for me trying date while going through treatment in my TODAY.com essay, Love in the Time of Chemotherapy.
I guess all of these dating stories, plus the fact that I used to write the Single Shot column for the now-defunct Seattle P-I, and have also written a funny dating manual (How to Date in Post-Dating World), is why one of my BC buddies on Twitter started referring to me as the “Carrie Bradshaw of breast cancer.”
Jeez, now that I think of it, I even have my own Mr. Big.
But back to Vanessa’s question about the hows and the whens of telling a date about your breast cancer.
I’ve done quite a bit of dating this past year, despite the surgery, the chemo, the radiation and the challenges of post-treatment Limboland. Some of the guys already knew about the breast cancer, which made the “big reveal” a moot point. Others — like the men I’ve met on online dating sites — didn’t have a clue, namely because I work hard at what I call “passing,” i.e., looking as “normal” as possible.
What does that mean? It means no pajamas, no pallor, no cancer beanie — instead they (and everyone else) get skinny jeans and black boots and maybe a vintage leopard coat. I sometimes feel like a drag queen getting ready to go out and about in the world, especially when I’m getting ready for a date. First, there’s the wig (made of my own hair), then there’s my gummi boobs (tucked into a pocketed Spanx black bra), then there’s the makeup, in particular my painted-on eyebrows. (Thanks to Laura Mercier eyebrow powder and a Bartell’s eyebrow brush, no one knows my eyebrows were lost to chemo.) During rads, I even wore my V-neck shirts backwards — Audrey Hepburn style — so no one would see the radiation burns.
In a nutshell, I do whatever I can to look like a happy, healthy, stylish 42-year-old. FYI, I’m also trying to “pass” with regard to age — I’m actually 53. ; )
Anyway, I can usually get away without telling a guy about the breast cancer for 2 or 3 dates (by then, I’ll know if I want to see them again and whether I need to bother telling them).
Unless, of course, they try to kiss me. That’s when things get dicey, mainly because a lot of guys will try to grab the back of your head when they move in which means they’ll feel the wig cap and know something’s up. I even had one guy try to run his fingers through my hair at the end of the date to tell me how pretty it was.
“Next time I see you, I’ll tell you a secret about my hair,” I told him as I jumped out of the car, sensing a bit of confusion on his part. (Did the wig shift? Did he feel the cap? I don’t know, but I did tell him about the breast cancer on our next date and we’re still in touch).
As for specifics about the “how to tell him” question? A lot of times, I’ll start by asking the guy if he’s Googled me, since I’ve written about my breast cancer in some pretty high profile places (sometimes I wonder if I’m trying to tell every single guy in the country at once so I won’t have to go through the reveal date by date). Most often, they haven’t, so then I’ll usually try to find an appropriate moment (i.e., once they’ve started drinking) and then basically just blurt it out.
I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way to do it, but if you can tie it in somehow with something they’ve told you (like a friend who’s been through a health scare or a recent health situation of their own), that can make it easier.
I usually don’t go into too many details, i.e., no gruesome stories about chemo or surgery or anything like that. I’ll just stick to the basics, i.e., “Sorry to hear about your knee surgery; I just went through this whole breast cancer thing last year myself.” After that, I’ll usually tell them I’m wearing a wig because of the chemo. And will sometimes tell them I’ve lost my girls but will be getting them back after reconstruction. Sometimes, I don’t even go there, though, since some men get too caught up in the whole boob thing (I had one guy not only ask when exactly I was getting the reconstruction but how big my new boobs were going to be).
The best news, I’ve found, is that talking about your breast cancer with a potential romantic partner is not the end of the world. I’ve had a couple of stinkers who’s slunk off into the shadows (they weren’t boyfriend material anyway and I was delighted to be rid of them). And I’ve had some guys ask dumb questions, like that old fave: “Soooooo, what are your odds?” The majority of the guys, though (and we’re talking maybe a dozen or so), have responded very positively overall. I mean, they’re sorry that I had to go through this crap, but they’re not daunted by the fact that I don’t have boobs or long hair or that there may be another cancer scare — or a shortened expiration date — in my future.
A couple of men with whom I’ve gotten closer to have even seen me without the wig and are not only completely cool with the fact I don’t really have long hair, they think I look cute as hell with short, short hair. So there you go.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve had nearly a year to process this crap so I’m much more comfortable with it. Maybe it’s my matter-of-fact (dare I say confident?) attitude. Or who knows, maybe it’s that vintage leopard coat. Whatever the case, though, I’ve found that dating with cancer is totally doable.
Now if only we could find some guys with that same quality, eh Vanessa? ; )