Whether you’re in a long-term relationship, an undefinable situationship, a dating app phase, or you’re happily single, it’s extremely common to feel like cancer tarnished your dateability. Cancer comes into our lives like a tornado and rips down the homes we once called our bodies, leaving a pile of rubble in the aftermath. The emotional and physical baggage we are left with often feels like it’s made us undesirable. If we are in a relationship, it’s easy to fear that our partners will leave us once we become sick, or once we change as people after treatment.
There’s a good chunk of my brain that feels like cancer tarnished me irreparably. Cancer disabled me both physically and mentally. After ten rounds of intense chemotherapy and a limb salvage surgery to remove the tumor from my tibia, I have a massive scar running from my ankle all the way to about halfway up my thigh, significant brain fog, and a few small scars where my port used to sit. I often feel as if I’m in the back seat of my body—it’s changed shape, and it feels unfamiliar and uncontrollable.
I forget important conversations that my partner and I have had, no matter how critical or meaningful they were. I don’t trust myself to complete important paperwork due to the brain fog and rely on him to handle everything from my medical forms to our bills. I have a hard time getting around since I’m still relearning how to walk, which makes traveling together like we used to extremely difficult. From time to time, I wonder if he wishes he’d ended up with someone else so that life in his mid-twenties would have been much more normal. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m damaged goods—a discount girlfriend, at best. I’m bruised, deteriorated, unwanted, and slapped with a giant neon orange sticker reading “cancer!”
Despite my sale rack features, my partner has been an absolute rock for me through treatment and beyond. He is the most incredibly patient person I’ve met in my entire life—I frequently ask him if he still loves me despite what I’ve been through, and I’m met with a sweet smile and a gentle, “Of course I do, you idiot.” He was my constant caretaker, while also working full time, regularly taking meetings from the corner of my hospital rooms. He managed all of the other things that life threw our way during that hell year so I could focus on making it out alive. Showing me off as if I was the prettiest girl in the world when I was bald and alien-like was a common occurrence. His sense of humor is a perfect match for mine and for the situations we were put in. We laughed about terrible, terrible things together to make it through as a team of two.
Surely, if he loved me before cancer, during cancer, and now, after cancer, I’m not as damaged as that pesky part of my brain tells me.
When I really thought about it, I found myself wondering—what if having had cancer doesn’t have to be a negative trait? I wondered if it changed me for the worse, or maybe even for the better. Curiosity got the best of me, and I asked him if there was anything he loved about me more now that I’d gone through such a big change in my life. He paused, standing up to pace while he thought. After thinking for half a minute or so, he replied.
“Cancer didn’t change any of the reasons that I love you. You’re still the same person, with the same personality I fell for. You were always strong when life got tough, and you always laughed your way through adversity, but during treatment when being strong stopped being a choice, those parts of you shone through.”
We chatted some more and I realized that a lot of the “damage” I felt cancer had done to our relationship was something only I felt. While I was upset we couldn’t travel together anymore, he was excited that we had time to sit at home and play video games together. I was afraid the way my body had changed was a detriment, but apparently watching me get strong again and gain confidence in my healing body was something he admired. When I was sad I was too sick to eat our favorite foods, he saw an opportunity to try cooking new things to cheer me up. I certainly feel like a different person, but maybe those loveable traits were always there, and I just wasn’t able to see them. I’m beginning to find joy again, and I regularly catch my partner smiling at me when I light up at the smallest things. I’m falling in love with living again, and sometimes it seems like he’s falling in love with me all over again watching it happen.
After a brush with death, cancer survivors learn to live life intensely. We love harder, we kiss harder, and we laugh harder to make up for the months, years, or decades that we weren’t well enough to do those things. When we gaze upon our scars, we may feel like we’ve changed or broken into a million pieces, but at our cores, we’re still the humans we were before we got sick. We aren’t as unloveable as we often fear we are; in fact, we are much, much more loveable than we could ever imagine.
You can follow Summer on her substack at summerkonechny.substack.com