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How Having Cancer Changed the Way I Look at Dating

When Meredith Goldberg was three years old, she wanted to be a manicurist. Upon realizing that she lacked the artistic skill, she started making things up in her head, including imaginary friends that kept her company growing up as an on...

The important lesson I learned about dating after I was diagnosed with cancer

Picture it: Washington, D.C., 2009; dinner at one of my favorite restaurants with my boyfriend of two years. When he awkwardly excused himself to use the restroom after dinner, I looked around and noticed that the bartender was pouring two glasses of Champagne with strawberries, but the restaurant was relatively empty. I wondered whom the glasses were for, and then it came together like a Nancy Drew mystery. My boyfriend was wearing a suit, on a Sunday, and had been acting a little jittery during dinner. I was about to be proposed to. In public.

I was not prepared for this life event to occur, but as I watched him slide onto his knee, tears in his eyes, ring in a small blue box, I remembered something my father had told me when I was in my 20s: “Don’t get married until you’re 30. You don’t know who you are until then.”

More: Having Breast Cancer at 32 Put Me in Control of My Body

I was 30 when he proposed, so wasn’t this the time? I said yes, unsure if that was my final answer, but too afraid to say no. We were in public, and I had never been proposed to; what if it never happened again? What if this was my only chance? Isn’t this what every woman dreams of? I know that up until that day, I had always thought that the great love of my life would propose to me, and it would be fairy tale-like. Instead, I was half-drunk from vodka sodas.

The engagement and the relationship pretty much crashed and burned shortly thereafter, with cracks in the facade becoming craters as we moved through the motions of thinking about a wedding. We eventually called off the engagement but tried to stay together, although I already knew that this was not the person I wanted to be with forever. I just wasn’t ready to let go — afraid to be alone. For six months, we tried therapy, constantly talking about our issues until one day, I was just tired of talking. It was time to let the relationship go.

Six months after our last interaction, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The year and half following my diagnosis, there was no time for dating — only time for healing. After the mastectomy, the chemotherapy, the radiation and the exhaustion, my oncologist gave me the all clear to resume my “normal life.” I had no clue what that meant, but took it as, “Find a job, get a boyfriend and put this time in your rearview mirror.”

More: The Best Gifts to Give Someone Recently Diagnosed With a Serious Illness

First dates are essentially interviews; awkward and choppy, always trying to sell yourself to the person on the other side of the desk or the table — there was never much difference to me.

Until I started dating post-breast cancer.

While I spent my days looking for a job in Washington, D.C., I spent my nights dipping my toe back into the dating scene. Some time had passed since I was back out there, sorting through dating profiles online, and as I sifted through countless images, I noticed that the potential suitors that I normally would have said sure to in the past were no longer interesting to me.

Idiosyncrasies that I used to find endearing, like reading a profile about a “reformed bad boy” were no longer tolerable — whereas a few years prior, if I had dated someone who would tend to disappear for a few days and then reemerge at 2 a.m., I’d welcome them back with an open heart. Not anymore.

My tolerance for the bullshit had waned. I was no longer searching for someone to complete my life or take care of me because I didn’t need that anymore. I knew I could take care of myself. The people that I had chosen to surround myself with during my treatment were some of the best people I knew, so if I were going to add anyone new to my inner circle, they would have to be someone who enhanced my life.

More: Why Losing Your Hair During Chemo May Soon Be a Thing of the Past

I didn’t need someone to make my life more complicated. I needed easy. I needed fun. I needed to laugh, and if the guy sitting at the barstool next to me couldn’t provide that, then I was out the door. I was no longer afraid to be alone, a notion that I don’t know if I ever would have come to if I had not gotten sick.

What my father should have said was, “Don’t get married until after you’ve had cancer. You don’t know who you are until then.”

Now I know.

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