So, have you been seeing anyone?” Abigail asked as we sat around a campfire in my parents’ backyard last September. She was a lifelong friend and we hadn’t seen each other in a while, so it wasn’t an unlikely subject. But coming just a day after my last chemotherapy session, the question might as well have been whether I’d gone to the moon lately.
“I’ve had cancer for the last six months,” I replied. “What do you think?”
Maybe my response was too blunt. Perhaps it’s as common in real life as it is in movies, books, and television for cancer patients to fall in love while lying delicately in a hospital bed, losing their hair and their appetites, and often, their will to live. Maybe it’s these magical significant others, discovered in the throes of crisis, that make the lives of those patients worth living. But as I’m a single 25-year-old more familiar with casual dating than deep, long-lasting relationships, that ideal didn’t seem like a possibility for me.
I was diagnosed with stage-three Hodgkin’s lymphoma on April 5, 2015, yet it was a few days prior, during the biopsy, that I noticed the first sign of a shift in my romantic life. When two middle-aged nurses learned I was single, they immediately tried to set me up with Brian, the late-20s/early-30s guy performing the biopsy. That love affair ended about two minutes in, when he went to attach heart sensors to my chest and got a glimpse of my uncovered body in the harsh fluorescent light of the operating room. I was hopped up on anesthetics, so my response was to smile sloppily and drool out of the side of my mouth.
That was the pattern that continued with any eligible bachelor familiar with my disease. If he wasn’t given an untimely look at my body, he was taking an X-ray of my pelvis or cleaning up my vomit in a hospital room. As for male patients, let’s just say the only ones I encountered probably saw the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan.
So I did what any self-respecting millennial would do: I signed up for Tinder.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I did this. I had decided while signing up that I wouldn’t actually go on any dates. I just needed some human interaction. More often than not I was too fatigued to walk from my bedroom to the kitchen—a total of about seven steps. How was I going to get to a bar or coffee shop to meet a date? And if any guy had showed up at my house looking for a one-night stand, I would’ve rewarded him by asking him to go pick up my meds from the pharmacy.
Plus, I could only imagine the sea of douchey, vulgar dudes I’d run into: muscle-obsessed bros, fedora-wearing mansplainers, guys who probably still live in mom’s basement. There was enough crap to deal with, I thought, without subjecting myself to the dregs of the Internet.
But much of my life then was a quest for normalcy amid endless doctor’s appointments, debilitating physical and mental pain, and the looming specter of my own mortality. Dating via Tinder isn’t an inherently pleasant experience for a twentysomething lady, but it is, at this point, a common one.
While registering I couldn’t help but think of the line comedian Tig Notaro, herself a breast cancer survivor, suggested for the online dating profiles of the recently diagnosed: “Serious inquiries only.” I wasn’t sure how much to say about my cancer, how much to let it define me. Should I just put “cancer patient” in my bio and be up front about it? Could that attract weirdos with a fetish for physically ill girls? On the flip side, would I find anyone out there able to look past my cancer to see that I am smart, funny, and completely dateable? I decided to go with my typical descriptors (“whiskey drinker and David Bowie lover”), and pulled in a mix of photos from before and after I was sick to show off my flowing locks (before) and my extreme weight loss (after). Then, doped up on a bunch of meds and suffering from an extreme lack of personal connection with anyone beyond members of the medical profession, I started swiping.
To my surprise I quickly started getting matched, and I decided to do a little experiment to see if the men on the dating app were as terrible as I had previously imagined. I asked all my matches the following: “Would you still have swiped right if I was bald?” The supposed scourges of humanity did not fail me. To paraphrase, the typical responses were along the lines of “Yup! As long as you have a vagina, you’re fine by me! Want to know how big my dick is?!”
The one exception was a clean-cut aspiring actor (what can I say, I like broke, creative types) who told me that judging from my photos he thought I had the face and the confidence to pull it off. We chatted for a while about movies, music, and books, and seemed quite compatible. Then I told him that I actually was bald and that it was because I was going through chemotherapy. That was the last I heard from him.
This was one of the first times I really felt like a sick person. I could sense how burdensome my disease might seem to someone on the other end of a dating app. I decided to withhold my health status from the next few guys I chatted with; in fact, having previously decided that I’d never actually meet any of them, I just started making things up. I told one guy I played bass in a band, said to another that I had kids, and to a third claimed to be French. It was nice to pretend for just a little while that cancer wasn’t my “thing.” Trapped alone in a failing body, these little bouts of fantasy kept me going. When I started getting requests to meet in person, I decided to delete the app. I’d gotten what I needed: a few compliments, a little socializing, and no STDs. It was time to move on.
As I sat by the fire and told these stories to Abigail, it hit me that even though I was now healthy, dating would never be the same again. Starting a relationship with someone who hadn’t been there while I was going through my illness seemed impossible; he would be missing out on a huge part of me. And going back to casual dating sounded frivolous and so not fun after everything I’d gone through; why would I waste time with a stranger when I could be spending time with friends and family? I’d much rather sit through one more chemo session than listen to some dude explain to me over cheap beers why Entourage is his favorite show. (Just kidding. Kind of.)
If I learned anything while battling a life-threatening illness, it’s that I’m not so bad at being on my own. In fact, it’s kind of great for me. I used to feel weak and seek validation from men, but after single-handedly beating cancer and going through so much of it alone, I realized how strong I am. I’m better than just a swipe to the left or the right. So here I am today, cancer free, devastatingly single, and happy to be so—at least for now.
Then again, I wonder if Brian is available for wedding season. v