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True Stories: Love After Cancer

How I learned to love after thinking I might not live long enough to.

by Lindsey Claire

I was on the way to the hospital when he called to arrange our first date. Sobbing, I pressed "Ignore" and tried to steady my breathing. I wondered if I would live to take him up on his offer for coffee — I'd blurted out "I only drink tea," and now, I wished I had said something better, something nicer. I hoped I would have the chance to apologize.


A few days earlier, a guy in my film production workshop at college had rushed up to me after class and asked to speak to me alone. Having said maybe five sentences to him in my entire life, I couldn't imagine what he wanted to talk about, but I waited anyway. He offered coffee, I countered with tea, he smiled sheepishly and said he didn't drink coffee either, and I gave him my number. He departed just as fast as he had appeared, leaving me surprised and giddy.

I don't believe in soul mates or love at first sight.

To be honest, I'm not a romantic. I don't believe in soul mates or love at first sight. Romantic comedies, unless they star Hugh Grant, make me weak in the knees for all the wrong reasons. Phrases like "we were made for each other" and "it was meant to be" sound an awful lot like rationalizing to me, and I don't subscribe to that, either. But I do believe strongly in love.

I'm talking about real love, not the love that's the creation of a thousand screenwriters and studio executives. A love that's like spider silk — simple but layered; strong but flexible — and once it's caught you it's almost impossible to break free. To some extent, everyone dreams of finding themselves ensnared in this web, but I only dreamed that I would live long enough to try.


At ten, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer usually found in children under five. It was treated with five rounds of chemotherapy, two bone marrow transplants, radiation treatments, and a fourteen-hour surgery that dragged on so long a priest was called to give me Last Rites. My hair fell out in wisps, then clumps. I dropped twenty pounds as the chemicals sapped my strength. At ten, I was just becoming aware of my appearance, and I felt decidedly ugly and unwanted.

Not surprisingly, I had trouble relating to my classmates when I finally returned to school. Everything that they were interested in, including boys, seemed inconsequential and shallow. I tried hard to have crushes on guys in middle school, but it was mostly to try and fit in. I would have loved for a guy to like me, but with a quarter of an inch of hair, no boobs to speak of, and the ongoing side effects of cancer — including chronic pain and bad skin — I was lucky to even have friends.

In high school, I had two long-term relationships. The first lasted six months and the second, a year. Both were emotionally manipulative. I desperately wanted them to understand what I had been through; how it had shaped my body and continued to shape my life, but they were unable (or unwilling). One actually fetishized my condition. He fancied himself a tortured soul and liked to trace with his fingers the foot-long scar on my back as it curved around my rib cage and ended at my navel. His touch was invasive and unwanted; it reminded me of all the doctors that had touched me without my permission, even though their intentions had been well-meaning.

To be clear, neither of these guys physically abused me. Discovering and growing into your sexuality is always hard, but my body was — and to an extent still is — a minefield of physical and emotional trigger points, which only made it harder.

When I got to college, I gave dating the — well, the old college try. But at a university that's seventy-percent women, it wasn't easy. Most of the men had what my friends and I called "Golden Cock Syndrome" — guys who wouldn't normally get any female attention were suddenly in high demand. I had a few flings, but I still desperately wanted a relationship. At first, I was honest about this and honest about who I was. When I felt comfortable, I revealed that I was a cancer survivor. Some accepted this revelation with the proper gravity, but others grew cold towards me, like I was contagious. Some were even nasty. Eventually, to protect myself, I just stopped telling people.

During this phase of self-protective silence, I started sleeping with an environmental science major who was also a drug dealer on campus, the type you can only find at predominantly upper-middle class white colleges: a hippy with a habit and rich parents. I had no idea he sold drugs when I first had sex with him, but even after I found out, I didn't stop. I would steal away to his room, tortured but unable to turn back because there was no happiness in our relationship, just need.

One night, the condom broke. He pulled away to put on a new one and nervously asked, "You're on the pill though, right?" I was torn between laughing and crying. I use birth control, but not to prevent pregnancy. Radiation treatment destroyed my endocrine and reproductive system. I can't create the hormones myself, so I use birth control as a substitute. This also means I can't conceive. All of this flashed through my mind as I lay there on the extra long twin bed in the bluish dawn, unable to tell him any of it. Eventually, I think I mumbled a "yes." I broke it off with him after that.

Commentarium (28 Comments)

Mar 05 12 - 2:07am

Lindsey, THANK YOU! I loved loved loved your piece- it was beautifully written, honest to the core and I appreciate that there wasn't any overdramatic music playing in my head while reading this. I'm a "cancer survivor" myself (ugh, I hate even saying it-not because I'm not glad that I made it through, I just don't like branding myself with any sort of label), and wrestle with the idea that I am all too often going to be a burden on someone else because of all this emotional baggage that I have a hard time shaking after going through chemo at, thank you for reminding me that others have undergone many of the same experiences and still found someone to love in spite of it all.

Learning to be vulnerable is hard not matter what (life threatening disease or not), a big thanks for showing us that sometimes trusting people a little more isn't so bad.

Mar 05 12 - 3:08am

This is absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing. May we all find our Eli one day!

Mar 05 12 - 4:48am

How beautiful!

When you go through the big stuff together, all the other things are easy and fall into perspective.

Mar 05 12 - 5:25am

Such a beautiful story (and gorgeous writing)

Mar 05 12 - 12:25pm

best entry yet. beautiful. vulnerable. precious yet strong. bravo!

Mar 05 12 - 1:35pm

All the best to Lindsey and Eli! What a great story!

Mar 05 12 - 2:02pm

so beautiful. i'm fighting back tears.

Mar 05 12 - 3:47pm

Just loving. Aw

Mar 05 12 - 5:26pm

I'm at work bawling my friggin eyes out right now. Beautifully articulate and candid writing - and obviously a genuine, poignant story that I loved. Thank you!!

Mar 05 12 - 8:41pm

Truly amazing! I don't know you at all, but I'm extremely happy for you.

Mar 05 12 - 10:40pm

As a single 29 year old cancer survivor (NHL 15-18) I have found it is terrifying to tell someone you are romantically interested in what you have been through. I can't have children, and that is a huge factor to a lot of men. Just the word CANCER is enough to have some simply politely leave. When do you tell them?

This article gave me hope. I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Mar 06 12 - 8:47pm

It's a wonderful thing, the greatest thing.

One of the most beautiful writings I have seen here. Godspeed, Lindsey

Mar 07 12 - 12:14am

As someone who also grew up sick, and who also bears the scars that my peers mostly didn't understand, I just want to say thank you for showing that while the surgeons can cut out the tumors and the organs, they can never cut out from us what really makes us beautiful.

Mar 07 12 - 5:51pm

Gorgeous writing. I was so moved by this piece.
I"m a cancer survivor too.

Mar 08 12 - 12:43am

Loved the spider web comparison, and that this story was honest and touching without being melodramatic. It also seems from some of the comments above that people in similar situations can relate, yet it doesn't sound at all trite. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with both your health and your love life.

Mar 08 12 - 8:05pm

Amazing. Simply amazing. Thank you.

Mar 09 12 - 10:40pm

Thank you for writing this. Our 30 year old daughter has just completed breast cancer treatment. In between diagnosis and treatment the most wonderful boyfriend showed up in her life. We all are in love with him and wish them many happy years together. Wishing the best to you both.

Mar 10 12 - 4:25am

I couldn't help but shed a tear after reading this, great job and I wish you nothing but the best for the future.

Mar 10 12 - 5:41am

Funny. I am a cancer survivor. Aged 24 undergone osteosarcoma at age 10. I was impressed by your writings... all the best and wishing you a happy life ahead.

Mar 10 12 - 6:49am

This is beautiful, thank you for sharing! As someone who has gone through a major illness i really relate to this piece. All the best with your future!

Mar 11 12 - 1:23am

You are absolutely amazing. Good luck with everything. I hope you have a bright, happy, and healthy future!

Mar 13 12 - 1:33pm

I too am a survivor. I have survived your garden variety "terrible childhood", Viet Nam, several marriages, drugs and alcohol and, yes, cancer of both the lung and thyroid. I find that, while each of these taught me lessons in life, I will not allow myself to be defined by any of them. I AM simply a survivor. Each of these "episodes" left scars and each provided stregth from experience and the survival itself. Your Eli is the kind of person we should all want to be: kind, supportive, non-judgmental and willing, to use your spider web analogy (which, oh by the way, is terrific) to help absorb the shocks life seems to graciously provide us and those around us.

I think the best lesson I have learned from all of this is that life is fleeting--enjoy it! Love your life, it beats the alternative all to hell.

Mar 14 12 - 2:03pm

Beautiful..simply beautiful.

Mar 15 12 - 9:46am

I wish you both all the best.

Mar 18 12 - 5:48pm

Let me say it from the opposite point of view (testicular cancer, luckilily >10 years ago, after successful treatment), two truely marvellous kids, divorce and the honestly best girl fried I could have ever met: This is a truely exciting story. Congratulations to writing this down. There definitely is a life after a cancer sentence.

Apr 15 12 - 3:33pm

Loved this story, especially your interpretation of what love is.

May 01 12 - 9:49am


Aug 05 12 - 4:38am
Special One

This story is so inspiring and gives us all hope. I was diag with breast cancer at 32 yrs old. A year after my treatment finished my fionsay decided he had 'sacrificed enough' of his life and couldn't be with (as he put it) 'a half a woman'. So he left. Well I kicked him out after he said that. I'm still gobsmacked at how the relationship ended. He resented me for being ill and he showed it for a long time. But I was always in hope that it would work out as he had seen me at my most volunerable state. I hadn't even shown my family that state. But he saw it and in the end spat and trod all over it. I was crushed and still am but getting better. Its so good to hear there are people like Eli out there. I take my hat off to you both and wish you every bit of happiness and good health life brings.