I sat in the kitchen of my best friend’s house one month out of completing six rounds of chemotherapy as she scrolled through my potential dates on the OkCupid app.
Mike, 37, from Arlington; Joe, 29, from Washington, DC; Frank 40, from Bethesda; all these men could have been the same person, and I would not have known the difference. The issue wasn’t my interest in dating. After all, I had been given the all clear from my oncologist to resume the life I had been living up until I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32.
To me, resuming my life meant finding a job, getting out of my apartment more than just to go to the doctor and starting to date again. The issue was I had no sex drive, which was a new feeling for me. I was 33 years old; I should have been excited for this next chapter, but the truth of it was the last six months had left me so tired, the mere thought of sex made me exhausted both physically and mentally.
If someone had told me in my 20s that just 10 years later, I would have no interest in sex, I would not have believed them. I spent my 20s like many people spend that decade: trying to figure out who I was, trying to figure out what I liked and didn’t like in my sexual partners and what made me happiest. I had believed each chance encounter could be the one, so I was never hesitant to engage with them sexually since compatibility in bed was high on my list of deal-breakers.
This approach to dating had been my MO up until I was diagnosed. After I found out about my diagnosis and the fact that I would soon be losing a breast, I wanted my girls to have a proper send-off and was successful in doing so. And that was it. I closed up shop, ready to focus on getting myself well — not necessarily jumping into bed with random men just because I could.
Even if I had wanted to have sex while undergoing chemotherapy, I couldn’t have. Because chemo is designed to kill cancer, it also kills everything else that’s good in your body, including your white blood cells. My white blood cell counts got so low after treatments, I was sent home with a face mask and told not to leave the house. I was instructed not to have anyone breathe on me, let alone let someone into my body, so sex was out of the question for at least six months. It was, at times, a relief to have chemotherapy as the reason I was not sexually active; even if I had been cleared to bed-hop, there was one noticeable difference on my body I would have to start explaining to my suitors: my mastectomy.
After my diagnosis, it was decided I would have a mastectomy on my left breast, and working with my breast surgeon and my plastic surgeon, it was determined I would have a tram flap reconstruction at the same time as my mastectomy. I emerged several hours later with a left breast constructed from fat from stomach and an augmented right breast. I also emerged minus a nipple on my newly formed left breast, which was certainly going to be a discussion topic for any new partner.
My new body and I needed time to get to know one another; I had to get used to what I looked like now, never mind exposing my body to someone new. I had no choice but to live with my body, but Jack from Rockville certainly did. I wasn’t ready for that rejection, that judgment. So I took my time, slowly dipping my toe back into the dating pool.
My first few relationships after completing chemotherapy were short-lived at best. I no longer had the mentality that each one could be the one. I no longer went into dating with the notion that someone was going to complete me because I had completed myself. I no longer accepted quirks and red flags as a challenge — I just walked away.
The further out from my reconstruction and chemotherapy I got, the more I became interested in putting the same level of effort into finding a partner as I once had. They say time heals all wounds, but it also helps you get your groove back.