By: Alona Metz
It’s date number three, and we all know what that means. He’s going to go for second base! There’s a part of me that wants him to, but I can feel the anxiety rising as I wonder how I’m going to explain myself to him. Maybe I can just keep my bra on? Or is that awkward? Should I tell him the truth? Or say nothing and hope he doesn’t notice?
There don’t seem to be any great alternatives and I can’t decide what to do. And then, just as he goes for the bra strap, I blurt out, “by the way, I had breast cancer!”
Can you say buzz kill? Although I must say, over the years I got some pretty great reactions ranging from “wow, do you want to talk about it?” to “who cares, you’re hot” to “I just thought you had fake tits”.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28 and chose to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction when I was 29. A double mastectomy means my boobs were amputated – the reconstruction means that I’ve got “newbs” which are actually silicone implants and tattooed nipples. They definitely look fake, they are not soft and squishy, I’ve got scars, and I can’t feel anything since my nerves were cut off. On the bright side, they look good in clothes and I can wear all the braless, backless, and strapless couture I ever wanted.
There’s no way around it though. Losing your breasts is a difficult experience, no matter how much you loved or hated them. The other aspects of breast cancer (hair loss, fatigue, hormonal changes, potential fertility issues) are not much fun either. And when you are young and single, this can make dating tricky. How do I tell a guy that the hair on my head is really a wig? What if he doesn’t think my “newbs” are attractive? What if he is afraid that I am going to die on him, or that this is just too much baggage to deal with? What if having biological children is super important to him and my ovaries were too damaged by chemo?
In the six years since my diagnosis, I’ve seen reactions to these issues that run the gamut:
While there is no doubt that the effects of breast cancer are shitty, at least they can help weed out the douchebags. I remember telling a lingering ex-boyfriend who was clearly so wrong for me (and who all of my friends hated) that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. His reaction? “Oh don’t worry, my aunt had that. You’ll be fine.” I got over him pretty quickly once I saw his insensitive side so clearly.
There was also the ex who was frustrated with my post-chemo fatigue and demanded to know “How long are you going to be tired for?” As if I enjoyed being tired. Or the one who compared my occasional loss of random inert objects (like a water bottle) to potentially losing our children one day. Hmmmm, not the same thing, douchebag.
Or even the poor guy who really probably didn’t know any better, but after stalking me on Facebook asked me about breast cancer on our second date, and then exclaimed, “Wait so does that mean you have scars all over your boobs?”
Lessons learned: A man that can’t be sympathetic and sensitive to the fact that you had breast cancer is not a man worth keeping around. Syonara suckers!
The Knight in Shining Armor
Douchebaggery is not always readily apparent, such as in the case of the knight in shining armor. One of my friends set me up on a date while I was going through chemo. The guy seemed nice enough. He had everything going for him, and on paper he looked like exactly the kind of guy I would want to date. And he acted like it too. After only a few dates, as I was lying in a hospital bed after my double mastectomy, he sent me flowers and a card to cheer me up. A month later, when I took off my wig to sleep at night, he didn’t even bat an eye. He showered me with gifts and expensive dinners. He always seemed so understanding about me being bald, boobless (this was before the newbs were reconstructed), tired and sick. It seemed too good to be true.
It was. While I had that amazing wig to make things look better on the outside, on the inside my head wasn’t really in the place to be dating at the time. I was very focused on survival and undergoing many emotional changes, as one does when being confronted with death in their twenties. I knew that I wasn’t in love with him, and so after three months I decided to end the relationship. He seemed upset but understood. And then, the next day I get a text message from him asking me that since I was over him, would I mind if he asked out my chemo nurse instead?
Umm, yes douchebag-in-disguise, I mind.
Oddly, I think I got hit on more when I had cancer than at any other time. Even without the wig! I remember going on a date with a guy who complimented my “cool” or “edgy” short haircut and feeling so excited that I’d met someone who found me beautiful even without hair. On the way home from our first date when I didn’t agree with his point of view on [insert random innocuous subject], he yelled at me. There was no second date.
Just because someone seems sympathetic to your breast cancer doesn’t automatically make them the right guy. In fact, I think there are men out there who simply love being that knight in shining armor, but in truth it’s a coverup for some other inadequacy.
The NBD Guys
After a few years of dating, my real hair was back on my head and other than the newbs and some residual fatigue, I was relatively back to “normal”. I usually wouldn’t talk about cancer on the first date, but by date two or three I preferred to just be upfront about it. Surprisingly, I got some really nice reactions. One guy, who I ended up dating for nine months, told me that he just thought my boobs were fake and that I didn’t need to explain myself to him with regards to the breast cancer. Another told me that the surgeon did a great job and that the newbs look better than most of the real boobs he’s seen. That was a nice self-esteem boost. Truthfully, many of the men I dated since having breast cancer genuinely felt that it was NBD (no big deal) that I was a breast cancer survivor and that my boobs were fake. Some of them did not even notice.
However, as dating goes, each of these guys was missing some critical quality that I needed in a life-partner and ultimately, the relationships ended for reasons having nothing to do with breast cancer.
One of the problems with the NBD Guys is that breast cancer is kind of a big deal, at least to me. I will never forget what I went through and it has greatly shaped and defined who I am as a person today. I went from being a corporate lawyer to working in the non-profit world because I wanted to ensure that I was doing something more meaningful. I started my own non-profit called Thrivacious, which is a community of women who have been touched by cancer who inspire each other to heal and fulfill their dreams. I became an advocate for breast cancer awareness and support. Ultimately, I knew that I wanted a partner with whom I could share my feelings about breast cancer, and receive support and love in return.
They say that you’ll meet the One when you least expect it. I don’t know if that’s true across the board, but in my case it really was. I had just gone through a string of one-month, disappointing romances and was feeling pretty over dating. I was attending the wedding of one of my oldest friends in the U.S., and she joked that her little brother (who I knew as a child and teenager) would try to hit on me. I laughed and responded to that text “gross!”. And then he walked through the door the day of the rehearsal dinner, and “gross” had turned into a 31-year-old hot surgeon. 10 months later we got engaged.
One of the many things that I really appreciate about this man is the way that he handles the breast cancer issue. Perhaps as a doctor, he understands better than most guys what my medical situation was, and what it continues to be. This way, I don’t have to explain myself to him. He’s also just a really sensitive person. I feel that I can talk about the challenges of breast cancer freely with him, laugh about it, cry about it, express my fears without fearing judgment, and be open and honest with my body. When I asked him if he thought I should replace my implants so that they would look better and be more squishy, he almost looked confused. His response was that he fell in love with me, not with my boobs, and that I should do whatever makes me feel the best because it is my body. He supports my passion for Thrivacious and for the mission I’m trying to promote, and he is proud of who I am as a result of what I have been through.
Breast cancer or not, we all have scars, insecurities, and fears. The One is the guy that loves and accepts you for who you are, supports your passions and dreams, and who will be there for you no matter what challenges come up in life. Even if you have to sift through years of Douchebags, Knights in Shining Armor, and NBD Guys, I promise you it’s worth the wait.
Alona Metz is the Founder & Executive Director of Thrivacious.