If You Don’t Mind Me Asking — Dating, Post-Cancer

This post originally appeared in the Love U column of the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper of the University of Southern California.

By Eva Grant

I was talking to Dan on Tinder. A witty back and forth. I’m good at that. We were joking about a Greek myth. “So,” he writes. “Can I ask you a question?”

I lock my phone screen, inhale and exhale. “Don’t even respond,” I tell myself. “You know where this is going.” Yet part of me wants to hear it. How will this guy phrase it? How will Dan stack up to Mike, and Joe and Jack?

I remember all of them vividly. There’s no rulebook on how to set up a dating app profile when you’re two months out of chemotherapy.

Stephen’s pickup line was, “Are you still fighting cancer?” That same night my roommate matched with him. She just got the word “sexy.” I would have preferred that more commonplace objectification.

Dating post-cancer
Illustration by Elizabeth Gu

The best interaction was with John. He sent me three messages in a row after exchanging an initial “hey” and “what’s up.” “Are you ok already???” he asked, followed by “What stage was it?” A pause. “If you don’t mind me asking.” Not cute, John. I did mind, but I said yes, it was cancer, and yes, I’m fine. There’s no official playbook, but I try to tend to stick with honesty as much as possible. “Ughh can I virtually hug you!!!” he writes back. “Just want to say how strong you are and how in love I am.”

Suffice it to say, when a guy now leads up to asking me “a question” on Tinder, I recoil. But I still wanted to see what Dan would have to say. It’s been seven months now since I stopped treatment. My profile says nothing, but all it would take would be a quick peek at my Instagram to figure out why I have a cropped haircut. So I let him ask.

“Finger painting or watercolors?” That’s it.

Am I relieved?

Every day in the mirror I see the ghost of a thinner, wavy haired version of myself. I was the girl who had nothing to write on the Common App because my life had gone so relatively smoothly. By 19, I realized cancer had been slowly destroying my body for two years and moved home to undergo six months of brutal treatment. I see these experiences everywhere, but I don’t look like a St. Jude’s commercial anymore. Grasping that people don’t automatically notice I’m a cancer survivor has been difficult to process.

I wear my survivorship proudly, but dating becomes difficult. The first guy I kissed after treatment was someone I had known from before but ran into at a bar. I was wearing my wig. I told him I wouldn’t go home with him. My recent breakup wasn’t a decent enough reason to him. Only telling him I was just out of chemotherapy stopped his persistence in his tracks.

I kissed a boy at a Halloween party, too. I was wearing a costume wig. It fell off while he was kissing me. We laughed it off. I couldn’t go without a wig again for almost a month.

I’ll answer anyone if they ask. But I’ve been in desperate need of a break.

Josh and I texted for two weeks before we met, and it never came up.  We met at a bakery, and I let him tell me stories. I stroked on black winged eyeliner and wore a tube skirt and a top that covered my scars. We talked and took a walk holding hands. Instead of asking me where I was a year ago (answer: probably in the hospital), he asked me what kind of bird I would be. He liked that my answer was chickadee. I liked that he didn’t suspect the real reason for my relentless positivity.

I like Josh because he’s funny and sweet and tall and he looks like a young Matthew Morrison with better bone structure. I also like him because he’s seen my Instagram and kissed my scars and hasn’t asked for more. I like that he buries his head in my hair and doesn’t need me to tell him why I cut it.

I read somewhere that you’re less likely to be hired by a company if you admit in the interview that you have a history of cancer. Until recently, I’ve been having that sort of luck with dates.

I was in love a year ago. When the relationship ended, I only cried for a day. But one sentiment frightened me more than any other: the man I will one day marry will not have known me when I had cancer. Would I ever be able to reach a level of intimacy with someone so deep that I could explain to them the depths of the suffering I had experienced at a mere 19 years old?

With Josh I’ve learned something beautiful and new. I’ve learned that at this point, I don’t particularly care. Josh has taught me that there might still be men out there who care more about knowing what makes me smile than knowing the details of my medical history. There are men who will want to linger on the curves of my hips, not the edges of my scars. Life is unpredictable and crazy and I will never know how long I have left, but I now know that I can be kissed and held and told I’m beautiful without any hint of cancer voyeurism.

Whomever I fall in love with next will have to understand that, around me, he can never complain about birthdays or getting older. He can never light a cigarette. He will have to wear sunscreen and get vaccinated. But he will also have the pleasure of my enduring optimism and my relentless strength. And when he says to me “can I ask a question?” hopefully I won’t flinch. I’ll answer honestly, and that will be enough.

Learn more about the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber.