I was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer one week after my 36th birthday.
Though this cancer of the large intestine is typically found in people over the age of 50, in an instant I became one of the increasing number of young people diagnosed with early age onset colorectal cancer (EAO CRC).
Within days of my diagnosis, I had taken medical leave from my job as a book publicist and taken my first uneasy steps as a cancer patient: getting a CT scan and meeting with my surgeon.
Cancer meant months of chemotherapy and a major surgery.
I spent the majority of the next year of my life in bed, with frequent trips to the hospital for treatments. On the good days, I enjoyed restorative yoga, coffee dates with friends, and walks in the park. Bad days of chemotherapy side effects meant nausea, tingling fingers, and weakness that kept me from leaving my small studio apartment in Brooklyn.
I had two wonderful cats, Bunny and Lucian, who snuggled with me, but I longed for a human partner with whom I could go through the journey. I imagined someone who would make me ginger tea for my nausea, bring me flowers to cheer me up, and just lie in bed and hold me when I felt frustrated and frightened. However, despite the loneliness, I didn’t feel I had the energy or emotional wherewithal to date during my year of cancer. So I didn’t.
Before cancer, dating for me had been akin to the film Groundhog Day.
I felt as though I’d been living the same story over and over again: I’d meet someone who was cute. They'd be charming and fun and funny.
Then after hanging out a few times, I wouldn’t hear from them so much. I wondered if they were busy. Or, I’d tell myself, they’d lost my number. Could they have gone on a trip? What if something terrible had happened to them. I thought I should give them a call to be sure they were OK. They’d take my calls. Then they wouldn’t. I’d keep trying to no avail. Then I’d meet someone new and it would start over again.
One time, while out at a club with friends, I saw someone I’d met at a party months before. He was an actor; so handsome, sweet, and friendly. “I know you!” I shouted at him on the dance floor, over the thumping music. “Can I kiss you?” I said.
“Sure!” he yelled back at me.
We tumbled around his bed that night, giggling and chatting in the dark. I left his apartment the next day, giddy in the sunshine that lit up the avenue. But he never responded to my emails.
After cancer, I slowly dipped my toe back into the dating pool.
For months I had an account on a dating website. I heard from a number of interesting people, and responded to them, but I didn’t want to meet them.
Part of learning to date again after cancer was learning to trust again, and I wasn’t quite ready to place my fragile life in someone else’s hands. I felt so so vulnerable after having had cancer—something growing inside of me that wanted to kill me—that I became extremely protective of every part of me: my mind, my body, and my heart.
I also had a great big scar on my belly. I hated looking at it in the mirror, but I accepted that it was part of me now.
When I finally fully ventured back out into the dating world, something had changed.
I noticed it after a date with a young comedy writer. He was so earthy and cute. I loved that he was creative and passionate about his work. I adored his thick brown hair. We met in a café where we chatted over tea and then made plans to meet at night. I put on my cute black dress and shimmering makeup. I styled my hair.
I was already on my way out for the evening when his text popped up on my phone. He was cancelling. He had a hangover.
Before cancer, it wouldn’t have bothered me. A hangover? No problem. We’ve all had hangovers. I understand.
But after cancer, my response was completely different. I had been threatened with death, suffered months of disabling chemotherapy and surgeries, and now had a completely changed perception of my life.
My life was important. My feelings were important and to be protected. No one had a right to make me feel diminished, or insignificant, or less than. Cancer taught me how valuable my life is, and if someone else didn't feel the same way, I didn't want them in my life.
I told the hangover guy that maybe next time he should have seltzer, and never contacted him again.
When another potential suitor asked me for a date and then disappeared, he also lost his place in line. “I don’t suppose you’re still interested,” he texted me weeks later. Nope.
I stopped falling into the same trap I had over and over again before I’d had cancer.
I finally saw my own self-worth. It’s not that I hadn’t accomplished things in life prior to cancer, it’s that when it came to dating, I just hadn’t grasped that I deserved to be treated well, until my very existence had been threatened by a disease.
Finally I met someone who I had a lot in common with. He was super-cute, incredibly smart, and loved my cats. He came to my neighborhood to take me out to dinner and didn’t pick up his cell phone once while we were out. He contacted me every day after that—before I even had the chance to call him—just to see how I was. Eventually we moved in together.
After a sea of people who didn’t act as though my life was meaningful, I found someone who values it nearly more than I do.
He loves my stomach, too—with or without scars.
Maya Gottfried is the author of books for children and adults, including Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary and Vegan Love: Dating and Partnering for the Cruelty-Free Gal.