it's complicated

How to Date When You’re Waiting for Cancer

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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I was 33 years old when I got my diagnosis: Lynch syndrome is a genetic cancer syndrome, a flaw in my DNA that means that when cells start to go rogue in a way that can lead to cancer, my body does not repair them the way most bodies do. The news was a shock, but not a surprise — many people only find out they have Lynch syndrome after they already have cancer, but I got tested because my father had it, which meant I already knew I had a 50-percent chance of having it, too.

My father died of lung cancer in 2014, and in the last years of his life, he urged me to get the DNA test for Lynch. Both of my siblings had gotten it, and they were both negative. But I demurred — partly because I struggled with the prospect of telling my father I had Lynch when he was ill with cancer himself, but also partly because I was single. My most recent serious relationship had ended three years earlier. While my siblings had both found life partners before they got tested for the gene, I felt very much alone, and I feared the implications of what a Lynch diagnosis would mean for my love life.

Because the implications are serious. As a Lynch carrier, I have an 80-percent chance of getting colon cancer, and similarly high chances of getting endometrial and ovarian cancer — which is why the recommended treatment for women is removal of the uterus and ovaries when they’re finished having children, if they want to have children. And if I wanted to have children (I did!), my doctor told me, I’d be advised to do it via IVF, which would make it possible to ensure that any children I had didn’t have Lynch. What it wouldn’t do, though, was ensure that I would be able to have any children at all.

It’s true what everyone says about how dating in New York is hard for women in their 30s. But it felt harder still after my diagnosis. I was no longer just considering whether a man I was seeing would be interested in marriage, would be a good co-parent, would make me laugh for 40-odd years. For a long time, I’d been pretty relaxed about being a single 30-something: I liked meeting new people. I liked independence. I assumed I’d meet the right person in time. Now, I would look at a man across a cocktail bar high-top and wonder: How would he deal with the horror of my bowel prep before my annual colonoscopy? Would he be supportive when I needed chemotherapy? Would he stay with me when I went through early menopause post-hysterectomy?

This last question felt especially heavy, weighed down by my awareness that my sexuality might be very affected by the surgery. In the initial months after my diagnosis, I suppose you could say I decided to make the most of what time I had left: I became an indiscriminate dater, perhaps out of some urge to feel like I owned my body despite the squad of doctors who told me again and again that it was a problem, and that they would need to harvest parts of it that were so central to my sense of self. Perhaps, as well, out of a kind of hopelessness. I’m not proud of a lot of the men I dated during that phase — at least one of them, I later learned from stumbling upon his New York Times wedding announcement, was in a serious relationship — but it was a phase, in the initial shock of my diagnosis, that I needed to move through.

The next phase began about a year later, when I met a man I’ll call P: he lived in London, which is where I’d lived for a decade after finishing undergrad, and we struck up an intense correspondence when he slid into my DMs after we had pieces published in the same issue of a magazine. When I say there were signs that P was not a good prospect for a long-term relationship, I mean that when we went on a romantic long weekend to the English countryside, he invited one of his childhood friends to join us.

And yet. What appealed to me about P wasn’t just our daily thousand-word emails, but the fact that he resembled most of the men I’d dated when I lived in London: a hipster-y freelance journalist who carried paperback novels in his jacket pockets, drank at the pubs where my friends and I used to drink, lived in a terraced share house with old carpet and rising damp. My attraction to P, I realized after we broke up, was driven at least in part by my desire to return to my old carefree life in London, the one before I knew my body was ticking its way toward cancer. In therapy, I came to understand that P was my rock bottom: I was seeking the wrong kind of relationship, a throwback kind, because I hadn’t yet come to terms with what and where my life now was.

It was just a coincidence that cancer was the first thing that E and I talked about on our first date. Or maybe it wasn’t. It was late in the summer, after the unhappy New Year’s that I’d spent with P, and I’d swiped right on E because he had posted a photo of himself wearing a yellow waterproof boiler suit. Maybe I was just feeling honest when he asked me why I’d moved to New York. I told him that my father had died of cancer, and he told me that his mother had died of cancer, and for a moment I thought: Oh no, now this is just going to be a date about cancer. But maybe that’s what we both needed: someone who understood how we were not the same people we’d been before.

I told E about Lynch syndrome on that first night, as if I had nothing to lose. I didn’t. By our second date I suspected that I loved him, and just under a year after we met, we got married at City Hall in Manhattan. Only in retrospect did I realize that people would think we might have gotten married so fast because I was pregnant — most people don’t know that I won’t be getting pregnant without a great deal of medical intervention. “No shotgun,” E said to those who asked, “just love.” I wouldn’t say Lynch syndrome made me rush into getting married. But these days, when I know what I want, I don’t like to waste time.

How to Date When You’re Waiting for Cancer