I harbor a not-so-secret wish that I’ll meet my future ex-husband offline, like at a concert or a supermarket checkout line. It’ll be love at first sight, confirmed by a mumbled joke about the band we’re seeing or the bag of carrots one of us just dropped. We’ll swap numbers and hit it off on a seamless first date that involves bread baskets, dim lighting, and stories about our families and jobs and hopes and dreams. Fireworks will go off at the end of the date (real ones, obviously) and the rest will be history.
What I’m saying is that despite being a girl who drinks beer, watches football, and has more guy friends than girls, apparently I want to star in a rom-com. I dream of an uncomplicated love story, because recently, my life story has been … nothing but complicated.
Last May, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was 27. The news came one year after I'd up and moved from New Jersey to California. My family and best friends -- my main support system -- were back east. What I had in my new hometown of Los Angeles was a new group of friends, an ex, and a handful of co-workers. I relied heavily on them, especially the ex -- it was much easier to fall back on the people who were there before I was sick and bald than to explain why I was sick and bald to strangers.
But somewhere between being declared in remission this past April and my hair slowly but surely making its Jewfro comeback, I realized I couldn’t rely on old relationships that didn’t work; I already had enough battles going on. Besides, going on dates helps you forget your past and have fun in the moment, right?
Right? Well, that’s what I told myself.
I wanted to feel normal again, to date like any other twentysomething. In job-centric, car-happy Los Angeles, that generally means doing the online thing. So I made a profile on a free dating site that I’d rather not name for my own sanity. At worst, I figured I’d fish through a few weird or creepy messages. At best, I’d meet cute boys who looked like football players. And if it didn't work out, at least I'd have some good stories to share.
Over the course of four months, this experiment resulted in ignoring 93 percent of the creepy/stupid messages, responding to about 12 guys who seemed normal, and going on dates with five of them.
I wasn’t going to hide the fact that I'd recently been a cancer patient, but I wasn’t going to mention it for no reason, either. That reveal is a huge reason why cancer kids like myself are scared to date: Which date is the right one to tell someone you had cancer? And when is it right to start dating at all?
I was about to answer all those questions for myself. I told some of the guys and never mentioned it to others -- it depended on either how I felt in the moment … or whether I was wearing a low-cut shirt that couldn’t hide my biopsy scar. In any case, my five dates fared like this.
No.1 was Tattooed Metal Fan. He could talk for hours on the phone, and the topic of cancer came up during a chatty pre-first-date call. He offered to shave his head in solidarity, which freaked me out. I didn’t want someone I knew to shave their head, let alone some dude I couldn’t pick out of a lineup. In person, we ended up having zero chemistry, which didn’t help matters.
Next was Stage Five Clinger. Before we even met, he would send me panicked messages if I didn’t respond to his texts right away. That should have been a red flag. On our first date, we had just started talking about how he hated all things Hollywood when he noticed my scar. I explained it and my diagnosis, and my now in-remission status, and that was that. I didn’t expect to tell him, but when someone asks a direct question, it’s just rude not to answer. At the end of the date, SFC asked if I wanted to go out again. He was negative about everything, but I thought, “Why not? He looks like a football player! And he doesn’t care that I had cancer!” We texted for another week, and then SCF went MIA. I should’ve known better.
Then came Frat Boy Writer, who was down to play bingo at a neighborhood bar for our first date. We talked writing, sports, and our families, drank a few beers, and he walked me home. For the second date, we bar-hopped. It was a very classy courting. At our last dive, FBW slurred, “Do you know how I know a girl’s a keeper? If I sleep with her and still want to hang out the next day.” You know how I know a guy’s a keeper? If he doesn’t say that. FBW wasn’t told about the cancer.
I almost felt bad for FBW’s super nice follow-up, Comic Fan. CF was kind and old-fashioned, picking me up before our date. He took me out in Hollywood, where we awkwardly played darts and realized we had nothing to say to each other. When he dropped me off at the end of the night, I ran out of his car to avoid a first-date kiss or talk of a second date. Mean and presumptive? Probably, but if avoiding awkward situations is wrong, then I’m cool with being both. I would have had to use words to tell CF about the cancer.
The fifth one was promising. The Joker and I never ran out of topics to talk about on our first date. He noticed the scar, leading to one more first-date cancer revelation, but unlike with SFC, this reveal didn’t feel forced. After that, we ended up seeing each other almost every day. Although we had fun on our dates, I still felt like something was slightly off. We would joke around a lot, but with each friendly jab, I realized I'd become a generally more sensitive person after dealing with cancer. I couldn’t change that. I pulled myself away from him before anything serious could begin.
That sensitivity is why all of us cancer kids are different: We’ve got baggage that most people our age can’t understand. I tried to ignore that, but as hard as I tried, I wasn’t a normal twentysomething. What I was and am and always will be is a young cancer survivor. The scars showed, from the literal biopsy scar on my chest to the many mental scars, like being hyper-sensitive about my hair (I wore wigs for the first year, then extensions for the next six months, and both made me feel like a lying fraud).
Regular check-ups told me I was healthy, but I rarely felt like it when I was having sudden crying jags over nothing. And somewhere between the bad dates and the decent dates and the exes and the tears that had nothing to do with any of those boys, I realized that I didn’t really want to date. I'd always liked being in a relationship, craved it; but now I didn’t want to worry, or check in with anyone, or play games. My issues weren’t overblown fears -- they were real concerns about my physical and mental health.
So what am I missing out on by taking a little break from the dating madness? Nothing but misery and a few decent stories to tell at happy hour, methinks. Of course, if someone amazing came along, I’d happily give them a chance. But for now, I have to live with my new reality: I had cancer. It will always be something I fought and still fear -- I can never be the person I was pre-diagnosis, and there's always the possibility of recurrence. That’s a lot to comprehend for myself, let alone for someone else to try to wrap their heads around. And while I don’t want my cancer to define all of me, it will always define at least a piece of me.