Article by Karma Brown about her personal experience dating after a cancer diagnosis provided by Self.
“What’s your husband’s name?” the fertility clinic’s receptionist asked.
“Oh, he’s not my husband,” I stammered. “More like a boyfriend. Actually, exactly like a boyfriend.” I took a deep breath. “Adam Brown.”
She smiled. “Middle name?” Damn. All I could remember was that he hated it. David? Donald? “I’m not sure,” I said, a blush creeping into my cheeks as she filled out the intake form for my upcoming egg-retrieval procedure.
“How about birth date?” Confidence restored, I smiled. I was 90 percent sure I had it right.
My relationship with Adam was only one month old. Even fresher was my recent cancer diagnosis. Here’s the thing about getting life-altering medical news at age 30: Everything moves lightning fast. And if your case is like mine, you learn that if you ever want to have biological children, the time for baby making is now. Even if you don’t know your new boyfriend’s middle name, let alone whether he wants to have kids with you.
Adam and I had met just three months earlier, literally by accident. After a fender bender left me with whiplash, I went to physiotherapy. The therapist, Adam—with his warm brown eyes, killer smile, and ability to make me laugh every time I saw him—soon fixed my neck, and I did the only reasonable thing to do when you find yourself thinking about a person nonstop: I asked him out. I was getting my master’s in journalism, with major career ambitions and no intention of settling down anytime soon. I had no idea where things between us might go. Still, with our witty banter and obvious chemistry, I wanted to see him again.
Our first date, at a local pub, was simple but memorable, our shameless flirting the stuff of rom-coms. We ordered burgers and beers, got tipsy, and made out on the sidewalk. I felt happy in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Soon we were spending almost every night together. We talked about our families, our worries, things we’d never told anyone else. We had one perfect month together, and faster than I’d imagined possible, I went from fiercely single to thinking that maybe this was what forever felt like.
Then came my last day of journalism school. In the middle of hurriedly editing my final assignment, I stopped by my gynecologist’s office for the results of a routine Pap smear. I barely looked up when the doctor walked into the room—until he sighed, clasped his gloved hands together, and said, “The results show cancer.”
Cancer? I was too young for cancer. I was fit—a vegetarian, even! As I stumbled, in shock, out of the appointment, I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. I worried about getting my assignment in on time, but would I even have the journalism career I’d worked so hard for? How could I be so sick when I felt, and looked, perfectly healthy? What would I tell my family? And then there was Adam. I envisioned the headline: Boy meets girl. Girl gets cancer. Boy leaves girl.
It sounds naive to say that after one month Adam and I were in love. But we were. And telling people who love you that you have cancer is excruciating. My disease, non-Hodgkin lymphoma of the cervix, was treatable and carried a good prognosis, but it was still potentially deadly. I had no way to know which side of the stats I’d fall on. So I gave Adam an out. But he didn’t leave; instead, days after my diagnosis, he moved in.
Taking Things Fast
As Adam and I began to learn each other’s rhythms (closet space, TV preferences), my days were a blur of doctor’s appointments. The fertility clinic was on the checklist, but kids were the last thing on my mind. Making babies was one of those hazy, distant goals, like buying a house or going on safari. I had a vague sense it would happen, but I was in no rush. Yet the doctor made it clear that if I ever wanted the option to have biological children, I had to start IVF immediately. On top of that, freezing eggs was an inexact science at the time; embryos were hardier but required sperm. So I had to decide—that afternoon—whether I wanted to ask my new boyfriend, whose middle name I didn’t even know (it’s Douglas), to make embryos with me.
It seemed impulsive to have this conversation over the phone. But the cancer would forge ahead while we took time to mull things over. So I walked back into the waiting room after my appointment, took a deep breath, and dialed Adam’s number. I knew we would either do this together or I would go it alone, and I had about half an hour to figure out which it would be before I had to tell the clinic. As I relayed my options to Adam, I reiterated that I didn’t have to use his sperm. The mere mention of procreation could have sent him running. But he didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s do this,” he said.
Only later, when I thought about what we had agreed to, did the worry really set in. What right did I have to create life when I wasn’t sure what would happen to mine? Was it selfish of me to accept his sperm—to ask for it? Did he say yes out of love, or guilt, or both? What if we broke up—would those embryos haunt him into his next relationship? What if I died?
Our calendar went from starry-eyed dinners to medical appointments, and by the time we celebrated our three-month anniversary, my eggs were combined with his sperm in a petri dish, and we were forever linked.
In many ways the decision sped up every aspect of our relationship. I learned to feel comfortable in front of Adam when I was bloated from fertility drugs and elastic-waist pants had become my wardrobe staple. He wiped my tears when I sobbed at the Gap, as I tucked my hair up into a bucket hat, realizing for the first time what I would look like bald. Once I started treatment, he sat beside me for hours as the chemo drugs snaked into my veins. Of course, in so many other ways, we were still getting to know each other, and there were the inevitable speed bumps. He was at times more pragmatic than patient as I struggled with the realities of my diagnosis. And I’d stay up late googling upsetting survival statistics, then be irritable with him the next day.
Yet there were moments of levity, too. We laughed hysterically when he tried on my wig. Cancer be damned: That summer we went out, danced, and drank good beer on off-chemo weeks. It was these things that created our foundation. Cancer stripped away everything else so we could fall in love—fully and completely.
The Next Chapter
Just over two years after Adam and I met, we were married, my hair tied into a tiny knot under my veil. It was a gorgeous winter day, and we’d unknowingly bought each other the same greeting card. My cancer was in remission, and once our newlywed status was a couple of years behind us, we tried to get me pregnant with our embryos: once, twice, three times. I wondered if cancer had found a way to beat us after all. I was not easy to live with, obsessed with infertility message boards, trying everything from acupuncture to femoral massage. On our third embryo transfer, the negative result still gutted me. I let Adam gather me in his arms while I cried, and through my tears said, “Time to try something else.”
That something else was my sister. Back when I first broke the cancer news, she told me her uterus was ours if we needed it. Concerned with protecting our relationship and her health, I hesitated, but she was insistent. “It’s your turn to be a mom,” she said. Nonetheless, surrogacy wasn’t easy. While we celebrated our impending parenthood, my sister dealt with all-day sickness. At the same time I mourned the loss of my own ability to conceive. But when I nestled my daughter’s tiny body moments after her birth, I became a mother. And nothing—including cancer—could take that away.
Today I am 13 years past my diagnosis and still deeply in love with my husband. Our 8-year-old daughter is our greatest joy and looks so much like me that strangers often stop us to comment. I’m more anxious than I used to be; the girl who once dreamed of being a war correspondent now sticks to the speed limit, always. There’s a permanent “chemo kink” to my hair, and I feel a tinge of melancholy every time I check the “no pregnancies” box on medical forms. But I see other differences between the before-cancer and after-cancer versions of me, too. Before Me was afraid of little and wouldn’t let anyone alter her course. After Me is ambitious but softer; she’s less likely to hold a grudge and more likely to ask for help. Before Me thought her independence was her greatest asset; After Me understands that allowing herself to be vulnerable—to let someone take care of her; to take a chance on someone she might love; to trust her family with her life—may in fact be her greatest strength.