As much as I love sharing my dating stories, there are a lot of experiences that I haven't had. That's why, as part of It’s Not You, I'll be talking to people with a broad range of experiences to see how things are different — and how they're the same. Of course, these individuals don’t speak for entire demographics, but they do provide some insight into the nuances of the very human search for love and connection.
This week, I spoke with Stef, a 44-year-old breast cancer survivor living in Washington, D.C.
Tell me about yourself.
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. I was diagnosed early-stage, but it was an aggressive strain, so I did need chemotherapy. I needed numerous surgeries. I actually just had my second-to-last surgery this summer. So, seven years later, I’m still dealing with things. I’ve been in and out of menopause since 37.
"Those are conversations when you’re in a relationship with someone — like what do you say? The antithesis of sexy is to say, ‘I’m having a hot flash. That’s why I don’t want to hug you right now.’ But it’s a reality, and these things are hard to discuss in an intimate relationship with someone who hasn’t been in this journey with me the entire time. Like, I don’t have nipples, and I never will. It will never be the same.
"I did have a double mastectomy, and I just had my third reconstruction. When I was diagnosed, I’d had biopsies and benign lumps removed before. You could tell some stuff had happened due to scarring. Now it’s clearly obvious. I think this misconception that — like, I didn’t get a boob job. I didn’t go in to reconstruction to get a breast lift. These aren’t elective surgeries that are covered by my insurance company. It’s all a constant reminder of how different my life is after cancer, and how different my attachment with my body is after cancer."
Were you in a relationship when you were diagnosed?
"I think I thought I was in a relationship when I was really actually in the dating scene. Cancer makes it really clear. Getting diagnosed makes it really clear where a relationship is going. I was in a serious relationship when I had the double mastectomy. I was with a very supportive partner at the time — we had a daughter together. And I am in a [different] relationship now, and he was very supportive during reconstruction. I think what I’ve had to learn is to recognize that, after a certain age, everyone has stuff.
"I realized that once I wrapped my head around things, it was easier to discuss things with partners. I had to figure out if I wanted to date someone who was so wedded to this construction of breasts as this perfect cisgender female beauty standard. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s not me."
So I know you said you were in a relationship when you were diagnosed, but then you broke up…
"Yeah. The night I was diagnosed, he left me and went to a strip club."
"Yeah. And then came back to me after the strip club."
That’s ridiculous. It’s the most cliché piece of bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life.
"Right? So I ended up figuring out who could handle things and who couldn’t. During chemo, I was closest with one person — I guess you could say we were in a relationship, but we were more friends, and we’re still friends to this day.
"[Being] diagnosed at an early stage, I was given a lot of steroids. So even though I was going through chemo, I gained 24 pounds in three months. And I made a comment about my weight, and he was like, ‘You look great.’ And it was something that simple that was a nice boost. People who love you are going to love you for you — not for these hang-ups. That really was a nice juxtaposition to the person I was initially dating when I was diagnosed."
You wrote about your sex and dating life on your blog, and it seemed like you were always out in the dating world. How do you think cancer affected that social aspect of your life?
"I think, back at 37, I wanted to prioritize and say, If I only have a couple good days between rounds of chemo, I’m going to go out there. But that was also my world then, and I look where I am now, with a full-time job — I also have a 4-year-old daughter, because life wasn’t adventurous enough! So I am a cautionary tale. Yes, you can get pregnant during menopause!
"Back then, I was bald, and I rarely wore a wig. It just didn’t feel authentic to the situation. But recognizing that there’ll be a lot of comments about what makes others comfortable, and I had to prioritize what made me comfortable."
That’s such an important part of this. Women often say they feel a loss of themselves, in a way, because they’re doing things to make other people comfortable. And I’m sure this experience put that into stark relief for you. It was kind of an extreme example of recognizing that your comfort is paramount.
"Correct! And I actually loved dating, even though I acknowledge that I’ve made some bad choices. But I’ve always enjoyed meeting people. And I’ve heard both sides. Some people will say that the last thing they want is to be having sex during treatment. But then the other side will say that it was the most empowering thing I could do in this situation in which I felt all agency had been taken from me. It’s one thing they can control. They can have sex."
I think the thing people wonder about dating while going through breast cancer is worrying about losing their breasts — is that something you grappled with?
"Chemo made me feel so sick. So I would have a round of chemo, and then I’d have to go back three days in a row to get IVs to deal with the side effects. I think when I was in it, I felt so sick that I didn’t have time to process anything. I knew I was bald. I didn’t like it. I knew my boobs looked different, but I was so focused on getting to the end of treatment. I think when it hit me the most was once treatment was done. My hair started falling out within three weeks of starting treatment, and then I shaved it. But I didn’t lose my eyelashes until five months after that. And I felt like there was always something, but I had more time to think about it after treatment. Some of the drugs I was on caused memory loss. So I’d make plans, and then forget I’d made them. I think it was about trying to wrap my head around the reality of it all that was the hardest."
How has this experience changed your relationship to sex and dating now that you’re cancer-free?
"It was one of my best friends who recently said that I don’t put up with bullshit since cancer. I feel like I have a confidence and a better understanding of myself in relationships. Now, could that have happened in my 40s, anyway? Yes. But I think some of it is about what I want to prioritize. Previously, the only thing I was responsible for was some freelance writing assignments or some events and my dog. Now, I’m teaching six classes a year at American University and doing larger events, and I have a child every day. So that’s the piece where I feel much more confident in myself.
"I feel like, now, when I’m meeting someone, I know myself better and I know what’s worth the time and what isn’t. I think I’ve become a better partner, and I’m seeking out better men for my life because of what I went through. And I know what I want now. I want to just be calm with someone — that and a nap."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
After being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I expected to meet someone and fall passionately in love — but wound up collapsing under the pressures of modern dating. Luckily, I eventually realized that there's no "right" way to date, and that I need to find happiness within myself, no partner needed. It’s Not You is where I write to calm the voices in my head — and hear from all of you. Follow me on Twitter, on Instagram, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.