I was 28 years old, single, and braless in front of the TV when I went to scratch an itch and found a lump in my breast. There was no doubt in my mind what it was.
Over the next year I went through what my doctor called the Olympics of cancer treatment — a lumpectomy, chemo, radiation, hormone therapy, and freezing my eggs just in case all that poison left me reproductively crippled. After losing my mother a few years earlier, I was angry at the universe. I’d always been soft and romantic, a total relationship person. I wanted a ring. I wanted to have babies. Who was going to marry me now? Who would want to date me? Even as I wondered if I’d live, I thought about my marital status.
I had my first sexual experience during chemo with Victor, someone I’d dated in the past who visited when he heard about what I was going through.
I was bloated, I had just lost my hair and I was feeling awkward about my wig (which was Farrah Fawcett-esque and pretty nice, as far as wigs go), but I so badly didn’t want to lose my sense of normalcy. I’ve always sported the long blonde hair, big boob look and it always worked for me. My boyfriends were always boob men who complimented my breasts right down to the nipple size and coloring. After the lumpectomy, one of my breasts was bigger than the other. I wondered, How is he going to get hard?
The sex with Victor was even better than before. It was just more emotional. I don’t know if he thought I might not make it at the time. We actually had sex again during radiation, when my breast was all red and I had black marker written all over my chest. He was just genuinely attracted to me. Still, I didn’t consider him boyfriend material and I wasn’t even really aroused. It was more like, just please make me feel like a human being for this period of time and make my body feel sexy again. I was just trying to survive.
When you get diagnosed, you lose all control of your body. I couldn’t smoke anymore. I changed my diet. Your body is constantly being looked at, examined, picked at, positioned in scan machines. You’re objectified for that period of time and because it’s really just survival mode and so you basically are at the doctor’s mercy. I felt like a test monkey pretty much. I just had to, in order to get through it, disconnect emotionally from my body.
I wore the wig everywhere and I didn’t wither away to nothing, so a lot of people didn’t know I had cancer at all, which was crazy to me. Nico hit on me at a bar a few months after I started treatment. He was endearingly awkward and very persistent. He called every day, even after I blew him off for a Sade concert. When I told him I had cancer a few dates in, he claimed he wasn’t surprised. “I can kind of tell when people have had hardships in their lives,” he said earnestly. “They’re just deep and more real.”
I repaid his sensitivity by using his body for sex. I became barbaric, like an animal. After losing all control of my body to cancer, I just wanted to be the boss of something. I had so much pent-up stress and I just wanted to let loose. I had to be on top and I refused to do it from behind, because I was terrified my wig would shift. (It’s very nerve-wracking to have sex in a wig.) Nico was blown away — until I started getting out of bed at 7 a.m. and watching TV in the living room instead of snuggling with him, like I normally would. Physically, I could not lay there with him. It was painful. Cancer made me more like a stereotypical dude in that I just wanted to get out of there. I wasn’t looking to make a real connection with somebody because I didn’t know what my fate would be.
Almost a year after my diagnosis, I met Austin online. I thought I was ready. He was going through a divorce. Both of us were vulnerable in our own way, and things moved fast. I wanted to attempt a relationship again. I was still getting chemo and he’d say, “Baby, I need to be there for you.” But I hated being hooked up to this machine with a tube coming out of my chest. It’s not a sexy place to be. You don’t even want to see yourself like that, so the last thing I wanted was for him to think of me like that. I’d go to treatment without telling him where I was. I think I was too independent for him. I wasn’t willing to bend my routine.
I definitely don’t take men as seriously now as I did before cancer. I had an awesome date recently, but life’s too short to wonder if he’s going to call me or not. The pressure to procreate was taken off me since I had my eggs retrieved. It would be a health risk for me to get pregnant in the next five years and at first I was very angry about that, but now it’s really liberating. When the thought crosses my mind that, “I have to get married and I have to have kids and I should be registered at Bed Bath & Beyond,” I tell myself, “No.” You go through so much during this process and you’re almost so strong at the end that you wonder, what can a man even offer me? I guess I’ll need sperm eventually. I’m so happy to be alive and out of treatment, I just want it all. There are so many guys out there. How can I possibly commit to just one?
As told to Michelle Ruiz.