Dating, straight out, is difficult. Dating when you have health concerns? It’s a whole different story.
One of the most common questions people face when it comes to dating is how to disclose their diagnosis. The truth? There is no perfect word, phrase or sentence to encapsulate what it is you’re going through and not scare anyone off. And sometimes, it just can’t be done that way because it’s dishonest to you and your story.
There are a lot of assumptions about those who have a chronic, terminal illness or disability, which is largely thanks to our ableist society and awful Hollywood tropes. These structures have taught us that love is fireworks and instant attraction and understanding, yet instead, it is full of questions from individuals. Can you even have sex if you’re in a wheelchair? What’s it like to have sex if you’re missing a limb? You’ve got cancer? Sorry, I’m not interested. When these very structures fail to include people with disabilities and chronic illnesses as romantic subjects and sexual beings – we are othered, stereotyped and often thought to be uninterested in love because we’re not capable of giving it or receiving it.
Which is completely false.
People with chronic illnesses and disabilities are just as deserving of sex and love as healthy, non-disabled people — but it’s such a maze to navigate. Gone are the days where meet-cutes take place between the wooden corridors of books that house the greatest love stories in the world. Now it’s all online. Add in a disability or a chronic illness, and for sure, there’s a whole new level of anxiety unlocked because of an emotionally risky process. Putting yourself out there into the romantic world isn’t easy to begin with. It requires a lot of self-talk, even though there is a lot of self-doubt. Of course, the fear of rejection takes over and makes you not want to try, because it’s easier to keep your shoes on and be your own main character than to take your shoes and socks off and dip a toe into the dating pool.
When I entered remission a mere six months after hearing I had stage III cancer — the thought of revealing my scars to potential love interests was incredibly daunting. I didn’t think young men in their 20s were mature enough to see past the word cancer and understand that my past may very well catch up to me and become the present. It’s the reality of a cancer diagnosis — it can always come back. My thoughts were jagged icicles stabbing me everywhere I turned. How can I trust that they will remain by my side? What if they resent me? What if it gets too hard? All the hows, what ifs and maybes — every single one was on repeat like a stuck record player. For years.
The few times I did find the courage to try, I was either ghosted or left heartbroken. I lost a lot of self-confidence because I was... different. I had a different body shape thanks to lymphoedema, I had scars all over my lower belly and a particularly menacing one right along my groin down my thigh. I suffered from severe anxiety and depression. When a suitor asked me one night why I always wore pants, I bit the bullet and said that I’d had cancer a few years ago, leaving me with a swollen leg. I explained that I needed to wear a compression garment every day and it’s just mentally easier for me to wear wide-leg pants. He nodded, seemingly okay with it. When I turned around to get another drink, he disappeared.
I felt like a social pariah and swore off dating. I thought I was doing everything right — I was being honest, forward, vulnerable. All the things you’re supposed to do when seeking a romantic partner. As I learnt how to walk in this world as both a cancer survivor and then stage IV cancer fighter, I realised how impossible it was to have others see you as an equal, free of pity, and it became crystal clear pretty fast that for some, illness and disability are a deal breaker.
That’s just the way it is.
So how do you do it? How do you pick yourself back up? How do you move through all your feelings of dread and internalised ableism and tell yourself to keep trying?
Resilience is everything, because the good news is, there are people out there who can embrace our differences. They’re not unicorns because they can see past something we can’t control, they’re just people who are a little more open-minded. A little bit more willing to say yes. You’ve just got to have the patience to find them.
How would I know? Because I found my person.
As years passed, my willingness to engage in a romantic relationship evolved as I realised I had pushed myself too hard when I was younger. Sure, the guys that ghosted me or two-timed me are trash, but I hadn’t fully accepted my cancer diagnosis. I acknowledged it, but I hadn’t done the work to be comfortable alongside it. To allow it not to overtake my entire identity, but for it to be one piece. I was pushing so hard to fulfil the heteronormative narrative that we should find our significant other as soon as possible, that I hadn’t worked on the very relationship that meant the most — the one with myself.
Did it surprise me that someone would stay and be with me to fight the unknown? Absolutely. It scared me like hell. It still does.
When I left for exchange in 2017, I was going with the purpose to learn how to live alongside this new identity that had been handed to me. I needed to know I could stand on my own two feet where no one knew me and take charge of my story. As I learnt about this new Natalie, I became happier, vibrant. More confident in myself, and a lot more willing to enjoy life. Soon I recognised I was worthy of all the things everyone else was, and as I sat in that feeling — along came Alexander.
They always say love happens when you’re not looking for it. It was scary, telling this boy about my past and what the future may hold. But for the first time since my first diagnosis, I told my story with confidence. I bared my soul and something about his demeanour told me it fell on understanding and genuine ears. I did so without looking for an end game, I just shared myself and Alexander accepted me. He didn’t leave me at a bar, didn’t say I was different and that my scars or leg were an obstacle to work with — instead, he embraced me for me. Even when I shared my deepest fear — a fear that would become a reality and the greatest challenge — that my cancer could come back, he held my face in his hands and promised me he wouldn’t let go, and that challenge would be our challenge. Did it surprise me that someone would stay and be with me to fight the unknown? Absolutely. It scared me like hell. It still does.
I may have a stage IV cancer diagnosis, that could tumble into something worse at any moment but I’m glad I jumped. Because I jumped into the most fulfilling and beautiful relationship I’ve ever had.
Your chronic illness or disability is just one piece of the whole puzzle of you.
The bottom line of dating is to get to know someone on an intimate level, to build a relationship that will span across years, and maybe even a lifetime. The key to getting there in the first place is how you tell your story. Be confident. Embrace your disability. Don’t hide it or lessen its existence. It’s one piece of your puzzle and each time you share it, it is an opportunity to define yourself by your own standards. Because telling your story has power, and not only is it powerful to you, but to others as well.