Illness was not the story I wanted to tell about myself. But two Decembers ago, at age 36, I found out I had a small breast tumor. Ten days later, on Christmas Eve, I was told that my Hodgkin’s lymphoma had come back for the third time. Both were manageable, my doctors said.
I remember waking up each morning and having to accept that this was my life. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone through cancer three or four times by their mid-30s. I didn’t know you got to go through it that many times.
I was alone with my oncologist when he told me about the breast cancer. I had hardly told anyone when I’d gone in for the biopsy. When you live alone, no one knows when you come and go, or where you’re going. No one has to see you scared. I figured this would go down as just that — simply a scare — and I could get through that on my own. Hearing the news from him, I felt destabilized. I got up, though, and walked myself home.
My parents came with me to the Christmas Eve diagnosis. When you’re single in your 30s, sometimes your parents still take you to the doctor. If you’re lucky, I suppose.
I could barely breathe that day. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and a sense of disorientation. I didn’t know what to do. But I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
I dove deep into therapy. My first therapist was close to my age and was excellent. We talked about my support network, and my being single. I told her I’d taken comfort in reading blog posts of people my age going through cancer — they’d helped me feel briefly less isolated. But when I got to the part where they wrote they were “so thankful for my husband/my wife/my rock,” they would lose me.
I didn’t have a rock by my side. But my therapist tried to get me to see the pebbles I had scattered all around. “You know, it sounds like you have a lot of people rallying around you,” she said. “If you’re open to it, it could be that being single will allow you to accept the love and support from those around you more fully.”
Looking back, she was right. I hated telling people I had cancer. And worse than that, I hated asking for help. When I’d had to deal with my disease when I was younger, I’d been private about it. I didn’t want people to know this about me. I didn’t want them to look at me and see it. This time though, I knew I needed all the support I could get, so I went and got it. I leaned into the discomfort and told my friends that I was doing my best but that I felt alone and afraid. These were tough conversations.
Here’s what I learned: My friends are adults now, and they all have something to give. I was afraid they couldn’t handle it or that I’d scare them off, but they stood by me, and that made everything easier.
To my amazement, I found that once I got over my fear of talking about my illness, people came out of the woodwork to tell me they cared. And months into it, when I worried they were tapped out, the love kept coming.
Which brings me to the men. I am so grateful for the men. There were a handful I like to call “my Tinder guys,” and there were others. For those who believe Tinder to be a shallow cesspool, know this: Some of the most supportive men in my life last year, I met by swiping right.
I wasn’t serial dating while going through treatment. As a single person I had a roster of guys I was in touch with, whom I’d dated previously or was involved with at one stage or other of hanging out or text-message courtship. They would reach out with a “Hey … what up?” and I would, gulp, tell them.
In the state I was in, I doubted they’d want to hang out with me, but they did.
There were guys who offered to take me out and have fun: “Have you ever been shooting?” Or come sit with me through the hard stuff: “I can go uptown or downtown, buddy.” They said we could talk about it or not talk about it. Whatever I needed.
There was one who made me laugh, one who brought me flowers, one who gave me acupuncture, one who held me when I cried. There was the one who talked me down when I got the dosage wrong on my medical marijuana.
There was the one I ran into and texted afterward, “I don’t look like I have cancer, right?” He replied, “Ha! No. You’re looking good and attractive compared to those without cancer.” (Thanks, man.)
There was the one I dated for a bit at the beginning, who took me skiing before chemotherapy and shouted after me “YOLO!” as I headed off to my appointment. Which was, I daresay, deeply profound.
There was what I called my “focus group” of guys with whom I consulted on the optimal size of my new breasts. A team of experts, if you will.
There was one I’d met the night before the diagnosis. He lived in a different city and we’d kept in touch by phone. I saw him for the first time very recently and was moved to tears when he told me that from where he was sitting I wasn’t broken; I seemed unchanged. “Improved,” he said, “if anything.” I needed to hear it. I guess in some ways I’m still picking up the pieces.
I didn’t have the one guy to come home to, or hold my hand, or be my rock. Instead, I had many who in bits and pieces comforted me, distracted me and gave me hope that things would get better. They made me dinner, made me laugh, bought me drinks, hit on me. At times they made me feel as if nothing had changed. Which was, I realized, what I desperately wanted.
People love to critique today’s dating world. They say it’s fickle and superficial, that relationships are fleeting. While there is truth to that, the flip side is we’re more connected than ever. The roster of guys in my phone were more than just a list of names. They were people I’d connected with; they were people who showed up and let me know they cared. It was piecemeal, for sure, but it added up.
So thank you, men. In submitting my body to surgeries and drugs, it was hard to think of myself as a normal person, much less as desirable.
As I walked home from my parents’ house a few days after my mastectomy, an angel in a Toyota Corolla honked his horn at me. “What’s he even looking at?” I thought. Could it be that I’ve still got it? What was once a nuisance became a triumph.
Disease put me in an uncomfortable gray area, where everything is put on hold. I found myself struggling to wrap my head around a simple fact: You’re either alive or dead. At times it didn’t seem clear what space I occupied.
While I’m eternally grateful to my friends and family, it was the guys who gave me certainty I was still present in the world of the living. I’m not sure anything is more life-affirming than love, sex or simple flirtation. Whether they were feeding my ego, my lust or my heart, they made me feel the thing I wanted most to feel: alive.