Several years ago I went on a date with Amanda (not her real name). We met at a pub. Before I had a chance to go to the counter to order the drinks, she dropped a bombshell. I don’t know how our conversation got there so quickly, but she used the words “chemo” and “cancer”. She looked at me, as if waiting for a reaction. The only thing that I could say in response was to ask her what she wanted to drink. Almost apologetically, she asked for a glass of rosé. I ordered the drinks and then we had what one would call a reasonably relaxed first date conversation. The subject of cancer did not come up again. Before we parted ways, she thanked me for not making a big deal out of her sudden revelation. She told me that it had been the first time that someone had not visibly blanched when being told about her cancer. I believe that, in one instance, someone had walked out on her as soon as he heard those words. We made plans to meet again. It would be very romantic to say that out of that first date I had met the love of my life. That was not to be. Amanda and I went out on a couple of other dates, but at the end, it fizzled. We decided to stay friends.
Shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the first people that I contacted to inform them was Amanda. She was about the only person that I knew that had had the disease and when you have cancer, the only people you trust with information are other people with it. You have instant credibility. Amanda and I met for a drink and one of the first things that I asked her was when to tell someone that you are seeing that you have cancer. Amanda’s philosophy was to be direct with the news from the outset, as she had done with me. I was leaning more to telling the person gradually, to soften the blow. She was very adamant about being clear from the outset. Having cancer instantly makes you damaged goods, forever. Only people who have had cancer or have dealt with cancer with one of their loved ones are the ones who are likely to stick around.
I think that cancer and dating or having a long term relationship are incompatible. Having cancer places a very severe burden on a potential partner. As a cancer sufferer, you have a strong probability of dying, most likely a slow, debilitating death. Until that imaginary day, cancer has very strong physical and psychological impact on a person, pretty much making you undateable.
The physical toll of cancer is probably the easiest to deal with. In my case, I was pretty lucky. Chemotherapy treatments only had a negative side effect on my skin. I suddenly discovered the wonderful world of moisturisers and exfoliators. After two liver operations, I now have a huge scar across my belly. To top it off, I also have an abdominal hernia, making me look partially pregnant. Since I do not have negative body image issues, it is not a big deal. However, there are the inconvenient side effects from cancer. In my case, as a colorectal cancer patient, I have a problem controlling my bowels. So one minute I could be minding my own business and then, suddenly, I could soil myself. Not exactly a great image when you are out on a date or a dinner party. But it could be worse, so you cope.
The psychological toll of cancer is harder to deal with. Starting from the confirmation of the diagnosis throughout the multiple treatments, having cancer is very stressful. No matter how strong you are mentally, there are inevitable low points. Many people tell you to stay positive, which is absolutely worthless advice. No one who has had cancer will tell you to stay positive, they understand. In a way, cancer sufferers are in a state of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unlike people who are diagnosed with PTSD, where the stressful incident can be identified, cancer sufferers are in a perpetual state of trauma and recovery.
One of the strongest impulses when you suffer from PTSD is the desire for isolation. This impulse, though, is counteracted by the very human desire for intimacy. Having the cancer label hanging over one’s head means that, little by little, you are denied the very intimacy that you are seeking. People start squirming when you hug them, they discreetly sit away from you, they recoil when you touch them or kiss them, as if cancer were contagious. The changes in people’s perception of you and how they react around you are subtle, but people clearly feel uncomfortable in your presence. So you have a tendency to fall into the default position of isolation. Cancer has gradually converted you into an untouchable.