Dating with cancer: do I mention the ‘C’ word?

Despite my ongoing cancer treatment, I still want to date. But should I tell the truth or fudge the issue? I’ve quickly learned that dishonesty is not the best policy

“I hope that soon I’m going to get back to the world of ‘normal’ dating.” Aoife Kavanagh, from Greystones, in Temple Bar, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I hope that soon I’m going to get back to the world of ‘normal’ dating.” Aoife Kavanagh, from Greystones, in Temple Bar, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


BlueEyes86 likes theatre, music, concerts. GSOH. Likes long walks on the beach (provided they don’t occur in the days following an intensive treatment). Likes good food in nice restaurants (provided there’s something I can eat on my strict anti-cancer diet).

Oops, did I mention the “C” word? I’m going to have to change that.

Since receiving a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer two years ago at the age of 26, there have been a lot of things that I had to change, but giving up dating completely wasn’t one of them. In an article I wrote last year, I said my prognosis wasn’t great. At that time, I had temporarily suspended my studies to come home and put my full-time effort into getting better. I drastically changed my diet and looked after my mental health. The statistics weren’t in my favour: two months at worst, and, with advances in treatment, two years at best.

It’s now well past the two-year mark and my tumours have been shrinking since April. In the past year I haven’t always been well, with difficult surgeries and more intensive care stays than I’d have liked. Not to mention all that mind-numbing recovery time (pyjamas are in vogue, right?). I’m lucky to have great support, and some of the best doctors treating me. I’ve never believed that the statistics applied to me – you can listen to a prognosis, but you don’t have to believe it.

The one thing I refused to give up was my normal life: I decided that I wasn’t going to become a “patient”, I wouldn’t let the diagnosis define me, and I would keep things as normal as I could. Getting out and dating falls into this “keeping things normal” ideology.

This may seem like an absurd idea for someone who is going through the rigours of cancer treatment, but for me it has kept my sense of normal alive. I didn’t lose my hair, and maintaining normality is easier when the reflection in the mirror is what it’s always been. I realise for many people with cancer, dating while going through treatment is impossible. Some may be too unwell, too fatigued, or simply not in a mental place where they would want to meet someone new.

I’ve searched online many times for advice about dating with cancer, but all I could find were articles discussing how to tell your new crush that you had cancer – past tense. No one seemed to think that anyone would want to date while going through cancer treatment. So, in the absence of any advice, I decided I’d have to work this one out on my own.

With its myriad of technological offerings, modern dating is somewhat more complicated than it was in days gone by. If you decide to enter the online dating world, you become aware that the truth is often exaggerated. A friend recently assured me that guys always add an inch or two to their height details, because girls often stipulate “six foot plus, only”. Every woman I know who has tried online dating has been liberal with some aspect of their profile, and they make allowance for it in others too. Ok, so maybe that really flattering photograph is actually two years old – but how do I tell them I have cancer?

A friend who had been online dating for a while helped me set up a profile. “You don’t need to tell the whole truth,” she said. “Let’s play up your assets.” My profile talks about my love of music, theatre and travel. It’s the real me, minus a few key truths. Being liberal with the truth worked: I got some messages. I told some guys that I had had “a few operations”, but that I was better now and going back to finish my degree soon. All except one cut contact after getting that bit of information. They were scared off – understandably. Yet what I’d told them wasn’t even half the truth.

My first date was with a successful, athletic, down-to-earth guy. He was the only one who had heard my half-truth and continued contacting me. We went for a walk, hot drinks in hand. I told him that I was fine now, and I knew my appearance wouldn’t give me away. One of the first things he asked me was when I would be going back to finish my degree. I answered the question: “I’m hoping to go back in January,” and tried to divert the conversation. I talked about playing the piano in my free time. I didn’t hide the fact that I was living at home with my parents.

Our interests were polar opposite. I liked Woody Allen films, and he liked superhero films. As we walked, I told an anecdote that I had heard a comedian tell about a blind date. He didn’t find it as hilarious as I thought it was. My favourite Doors song was the only one he didn’t like. The lukewarm coffee was mirroring the conversation. A few days later he texted saying he wasn’t interested in taking it further. I had felt exactly the same way, but my ego was bruised. Why didn’t he want to give it another go? Had I not been interesting or funny? Was I not pretty enough? Friends told me to forget about it – after all, I had felt the same way about him, hadn’t I?

Some days after that, a friend said she had been mulling the whole thing over. “A sex change! Of course he’s going to think that’s what those mysterious operations were for!” She had a point. Because I had been so vague about what was wrong with me, he could have come up with any number of scenarios. Maybe he’d surmised that I had actually dropped out of college and was living off my parents. He was a successful man – perhaps he thought I was looking for someone to buy me things. I had been so focused on getting my story right to hide the I-have-cancer identity that I hadn’t thought about how my half-truths might be interpreted.

My friend advised me to be more inventive in the future: make up a job, say I’m living at home to save for a deposit on a house. She suggested I say I work as a secretary. Everybody knows what a secretary does, so it doesn’t invite follow-up questions. “I am a secretary, not living off my parents, not looking for someone to buy me things. I am healthy. I am happy in my job. I do not have cancer.”

I had already been experimenting with some half-truths for a while. One guy that I was talking to on a night out asked me where I lived. “I live in Greystones.” “What do you do with yourself?” “I’m studying physiotherapy.” “Whereabouts are you studying?” “In Aberdeen. ” “Oh . . . so . . . do you go back and forth?” “Yeah, I do . . .” I travelled back and forth from Greystones to Aberdeen, doing a full-time degree? That conversation didn’t go much further.

Where does the modern online dater draw the line? I had already felt uncomfortable with the vague way in which I was relating to guys I was interested in. If I were having treatment on a Tuesday, I’d say to any potential dates that it was a busy few days and I wouldn’t be able to meet until the following week. The treatments make me tired for days after. Many people have topics they steer clear of and truths they don’t disclose when they meet someone new. I don’t think the guys I meet need to know my medical history straight away. Does this fall into the realm of bending the truth, or is it clear-cut dishonesty?

In the past two years I have given up many things, but honesty is something I cannot surrender. The cliché that honesty is the foundation of every good relationship is something I believe and try to live by. I had tried being evasive without lying outright, but the possibility of a guy thinking that I may have had a sex change showed me that this probably wasn’t working.

With that in mind, I think my foray into the dating world might be over for the moment. I may not be working as a secretary and saving for a deposit on a house, but the work I’m doing right now is much more important than that. I’m working full-time on getting well again.

Will I soon be reading dating advice for people who are in remission, and trying to figure out how to tell my crush that I had cancer? I hope that soon I’m going to get back to the world of “normal” dating, one without too many fictions (well, maybe an acceptable few). That would be something to talk about. That would be a story that I wouldn’t need to exaggerate.

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