Before I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, my doctor thought the pain might be an STD. I told him that was highly unlikely, because, you know, you usually have to have sex to get a sexually transmitted disease.
Many people dealing with cancer have the support of a spouse. I did not. I was a 30-year-old very single gay man living in Los Angeles, where dating is less about love and more about settling for someone until the next best thing comes along. I was so single that one night I seriously looked into having my ashes put into little Etch-A-Sketch keychains so that friends could play with me in the event of my death.
Before I got cancer, I thought dating was hard. Then I turned 30, got sick, and quickly learned that dating with cancer is an entirely different game.
During chemo in Beverly Hills—six hours a day, five days a week—I’d peruse dating websites, at first not revealing I was sick. Even though I was dealing with something very serious, I still wanted to love and be loved. All around me spouses sat by loved ones hooked up to IVs, and here I was, alone, swiping away on hookup apps. What’s the point of getting cancer if you can’t use it for pity sex?
So I started to masturbate—a lot. At chemo, at home, at Target, at gas stations. I masturbated obsessively to feel alive, and to pass the time. If I couldn’t have sex, then I might as well entertain myself.
Feeling drained (for obvious reasons, not all cancer-related), I did go on a couple of dates during this stretch. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t choosy. It’s hard to be picky when you’re dating with cancer; you’re more focused on living and less focused on his third nipple. Plus, the upside to chemo is that my skin never looked better, and I was super skinny because most food wouldn’t stay down.
The dates—well, the dates did not go well. For one, being gay with cancer is pretty terrible because the first place your date’s mind goes when you look frail and weak is “AIDS?” Second, it’s hard to talk about anything else.
“This food is great,” my date would say.
“Yeah, it is. Here, taste this. I can’t tell if it tastes funny or if it’s just my chemo.”
Needless to say, they weren’t interested in a second date.
You’d think people in Los Angeles would love dating someone with cancer: There’s a good chance it’s going to be a short-term commitment.
When you get cancer, people have an immediate reaction to you. Whether it’s a date or a stranger, when a person learns you have cancer, they tell you about the person they know who had cancer … and died. I feel for them, but the last thing I wanted to hear during chemo was a story about someone dying.
These same people would offer unsolicited advice. One date suggested I take up juicing: “Coconut juice has been shown to cure cancer,” he’d say. Shown by whom, Mowgli from The Jungle Book? How much coconut juice cures cancer? A gallon? Is it covered by my insurance? Maybe Dr. Oz knows.
I was getting plenty of advice from paid professionals; I would’ve much preferred that my dates just take advantage of me.
A little over a year out of chemo, I still get screened regularly and am monitored by doctors. The fear is that the cancer will spread or I’ll get a new type of cancer, caused by the chemo. I know all of this, hear it regularly, and still go on dates.
The challenge now is how to let a date know without freaking him out. You can’t just ignore the two years of your life consumed by cancer, but you also can’t let them define you. Nor do you want to make it an invitation for them to harp on something that is still very much a reality for me, but has also begun to feel like the near past.
“I was born in July,” I start to say on a first date, “which makes me a cancer, which is on brand because I had cancer. But I’m fine now. When were you born?”
The lesson? People love astrology, so use it as a distraction.
I’m still single—insert “womp womp” here—and I’m still dealing with some heavy stuff. But I do it knowing that I own my own reality; I own my cancer. By owning it, I’m living. Living with cancer isn’t a reality that I ever thought I’d have to face. Then again, neither is living alone with a cat at the age of 32.
In dating, as in life, you never know who or what is around the corner. I just hope it’s someone with a lot of money, because I’ve got a ton of cancer debt. You hear that, Andy Cohen? I’m available!