Archive | January, 2012

The Carrie Bradshaw of breast cancer

15 Jan

When it comes to breast cancer, are men bigger boobs than the ones we lost?

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.

Post surgery, post chemo, post radiation me, getting ready to go out. I've got on my war paint and my prostheses. Fake it til you make it, baby. ; )

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.

Home from a date in my vintage leopard coat. The coat’s faux fur, but the wig’s made from my own hair!

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?  ; )

Chuckles, the cancer clown

7 Jan

It’s a gray, muzzy Saturday here in Seattle and I have to say the external weather and my internal mood are perfectly matched.

I’m not sure what happened. Last night, I went out with a slew of journalistic types — smart, snarky sorts with more quips up their sleeves than tattoos (which is saying something for Seattle) — and I had a perfectly lovely time meeting new people and yammering with old buds. One of those buds was a colleague I hadn’t seen in more than a year, which meant we had a lot of catching up to do.

In other words, there was a lot of cancer talk.

As usual when I’m out with a group of people who know about my situation, I became Chuckles, the Cancer Clown, cracking wise about the double mastectomy, the chemo, the hair loss, the radiation, the daily doses of tamoxifen — the whole nine yards. Listening to me talk about my breast cancer experience, you’d think it was all a big hoot. You’d think I wasn’t a bit fazed by the loss of my beautiful breasts and the fact that my chest now looks like a 10-year-old boy’s that’s been badly ironed.

Sure, my nipples are crooked and there are wrinkles and folds where there used to be lovely feminine mounds. But so what? I’ve got fabulous new fake boobs, given to me by a friend of a friend who got them at Nordstrom for $300 each. “I call them my gummi boobs!” I tell my editor buddy. “Aren’t they great? I can just hand them to some guy if he wants to feel me up and I’m not into it. And when I get tired of ’em, I can just tuck ’em away in a drawer!”

Watching me laugh and joke about my wig — made from my own hair which I had to shave to save (one of the hardest decisions of my life) — you’d never imagine me pounding my bathroom mirror, sobbing “Come back! Come back! Oh god, please come back!” at my patchy bald pate during those horrible long months following chemo.

I hide the pain, the anguish, the grief, the whole horrible mindfuck that is cancer treatment quite well. At least when I’m out with friends.

Once I’m home, though, things are different. Chuckles slips away and I’m left with Cancer Chick, the girl who winces as she pulls off the wig (the double stick tape is attached to new growth now and takes out a chunk of hair with each wear). After the wig is gone, Cancer Chick then changes into a nightgown and diligently rubs castor oil all over her chest — or what’s left of it — hoping it will soak into the skin and the muscle beneath and make it possible for the skin to stretch enough to hold tissue expanders and eventually implants. Hopefully, not implants that will encapsulate or explode once they’re inside.

Of course, this may all be for naught. Thanks to radiation — you should hear my stand-up routine on that particular topic — the skin on the left side might not stretch. It might not heal. So I may be forced to have some kind of complicated surgery that harvests a chunk of muscle and tissue from some other part of my body in order to build a boob there.

“I may end up with a butt for a boob,” I told my friend last night and we both howled at the wackiness of that.

I’m sure part of it was the beer. Part of it was the discomfort of having to talk about cancer in a group setting. Part of it was my almost fanatical insistence on making others feel comfortable about the fact that I’ve somehow ended up with this lousy, terrifying disease. And part of it — and this particularly grim blog post, no doubt — is the tamoxifen that has me swinging back and forth like a emotional version of Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to have a stick up your ass about your problems all the time. Black humor is what got me through my warzone of a childhood and it has served me well through this current cancer zone, as well.

But it’s also good to remember — to acknowledge to myself and to others — that sometimes my cancer is not going to be amusing. It’s actually going to make me cry in front of you. Or stay at home curled in a ball under my coffee table. And despite the fact that I’m no longer in treatment, my grand cancer adventure is not over by a long shot.

Although, thankfully, neither is Chuckles’ brave little standup routine.