Picture this: You’re in a bar, and a guy a few seats over starts flirting. Soon, you’re sharing personal details — the last movie you’ve seen, music you like. Then, if you happen to be in a high-powered city like Los Angeles, where I live, one of you inevitably asks what the other does for a living.
For me, that’s when things get uncomfortable, especially when all his friends are standing around listening. Because I’m not working. Almost three years ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Since then I’ve been on disability, and it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing me as a potential partner. Among other things, I can’t have kids and I have a disfigured right breast. After treatment, when I could go out again, I remember thinking, What the f--- do I say to the “What do you do?” question.
That I can’t work? That statistically, I don’t have long to live?That the fact that I’ve made it two years is a miracle? Boy, am I a catch! When I do manage to explain, guys say, “So, you’re cured, right?” and I’ll say, “No. Stage IV cancer is not curable.” And they’ll say, “Wow. That’s heavy.”
The worst date ever
Oddly, my breast cancer odyssey began on a date. I was out with a guy I’d seen a few times before — I’ll call him Jake — and when we got back to his house, we started kissing. Soon, he ran his hand across my breast and all the action stopped. “Do you know you have a lump?” he asked, looking worried. That definitely killed the mood. I wanted to keep going — I was a little buzzed and a lot horny! — but Jake made me feel it, and then I began to worry. Not surprisingly, we didn’t have sex.
The next day, Jake was adamant about my getting the lump checked, and I ended up seeing three different doctors, all of whom reassured me that at 30, I was too young to have breast cancer. They also said that because my lump was tender to the touch, that it was unlikely to be cancer; breast cancer lumps aren’t usually painful. Mastitis, they called it. A breast infection. But they were wrong. Now that I know what I do, I say, Shame on those doctors for not ordering a breast biopsy sooner, just to be safe.
Finally, after a suspicious ultrasound, one doctor ordered a biopsy. Two days later, I learned that I had a very aggressive cancer, which yet more tests revealed had already spread to my spine and bones. The official diagnosis, which I got after six weeks, was stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I was given a year to live.
During my diagnosis nightmare, I got very close to a man I’ll call Luis, whom I met around the same time as Jake. But while Jake and I became friends, I fell in love with Luis. He oozed so much passion, I figured I’d found my McSteamy. On the day I was diagnosed, he came over and said, “You’re coming to stay with me.”
My sex drive has always been healthy, but something happened when I got sick, despite all the harsh treatments: My sex drive went through the roof, even after I started chemo and lost my hair (everywhere!). Of course, there were days I didn’t feel well enough to be intimate, but I’d always bounce back and want Luis, mostly because I craved the closeness. Even though I had no hair, I was bone-skinny and chemo toxins were oozing out of my pores, he still made me feel sexy and loved. Wig on or wig off, it didn’t matter. We even had spontaneous sex in the hospital one time when I was getting into one of those gowns that open up in the back — we couldn’t help but take advantage! In some ways, the sex was lifesaving; it helped take my mind off everything that was happening. I’ve always had a hunger for life, and the diagnosis only intensified that. Whether I’m playing with my dog in the backyard and he’s licking my face or I’m connecting with a guy, I cherish those moments of chemistry.
A grueling course of treatment
Within three weeks of that diagnosis, doctors inserted a port into my arm (a big, round metal thing that makes it easier to stick the needles in) and I started chemo, with all the nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body cramps and other symptoms. As a bonus, the chemo put me into early menopause, which brought on blazing hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia. I was told I could never have children because the presence of estrogen in my body would feed the cancer. I was devastated, and I still had breast surgery and radiation to get through. All of this took a toll on Luis, too. He stuck with me through the chemo, but I know the whole thing wore on him. He had become my co-survivor, something he said he didn’t sign up for. (Hell, neither did I.) But I think he was done with me and my diagnosis. So we ended it, and he helped me move back into my apartment. I was heartbroken, but really, how could I blame him? This was my battle to fight.
Back on the dating scene
After Luis and I broke up, I wanted to date again, I wanted to have sex again and most of all I wanted to feel close to someone in an intimate way. But I was also very scared of being rejected. I have a chronic disease — doctors have told me that it’s not a matter of if the cancer returns but when. And the fact that I was missing most of my right breast, not to mention my hair, made me feel inadequate, especially when I was surrounded by all the beautiful women in L.A. with their long, sexy hair and outrageous bodies. It was hard to compete. I got a great-looking long-haired wig, but I had to stick it on with double-sided tape, and removing it hurt — it peeled off my skin and left red welts. Not sexy. Guys would say, “I love your hair,” and ask for my number, and I’d think, If you only knew. I’d tell them, “I’ve got heavy baggage!” Of course, when I went out without the wig, I got a different kind of attention, which is to say minimal. Mostly, my attitude about meeting men was “I’ve been through the wringer. If you want to be friends, fine, but as far as anything else, I’m not feeling it.”
Taking a risk with a new man
After about a year of celibacy, I met someone — I’ll call him Steve — when I was out with my friends one night. By that time, I didn’t look sickly, and I hadn’t had a recurrence. I didn’t tell Steve much about my situation; mostly, I talked to his friend, whose wife had died of breast cancer at a young age. So when Steve called a few days later, I asked, “Do you know about my situation? Are you sure you want to go out?” And he said, “None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. We’re all at risk.” So I felt reassured, and we made a date.
At first, I didn’t let on about all I’d been through. At the beginning of a relationship, you want to bang each other against a wall, and a conversation about cancer isn’t necessarily going to lead to that. When Steve and I were about to have sex for the first time, I felt embarrassed to show him my breast, which, after my partial mastectomy, looked caved in. I had no intention of taking off my shirt; I wanted to do the deed and get it over with. But before I could stop him, Steve ran the bath for me, lit candles and got in. I remember thinking, Thank God there are bubbles; at least I can hide my chest. But Steve didn’t seem to care what I looked like. He started kissing my breast and being very nurturing. Still, I dreaded getting naked in the light of day. I know how the male mind operates: Breasts are a big part of the package. So I tried to make up for it with my ass.
Regaining my confidence
Steve was adventurous and spontaneous, and he was a big distraction, which is exactly what I needed. As the months went by, though, I realized we weren’t right for each other, so we broke up. But the relationship helped me feel more confident; after him, I knew I’d date again. With time, I even started being more straightforward with men I wanted to date about what was going on with me. Now I address the elephant in the room — when a guy asks, “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a survivor of advanced breast cancer and a patient advocate. I’ve been in treatment, I’m healing and I’m celebrating my life.” One reason it has gotten easier is (a) I’ve survived longer than anyone thought I would and (b) I’m more confident in my delivery. It’s not simply about me being at ease; it’s about putting others at ease. Sure, sometimes I run into a guy who says something like, “Sorry you went through that — bye.” Then I’ll see him with a girl at the next table. That hurts. But most people end up inspired, because it’s truly about how you handle it.
Use it or lose it
Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s extremely important for oncologists to be open about sex with breast cancer survivors. It’s crucial for these women to do anything they can to get sexually aroused, not only for their state of well-being but for the vagina, which can atrophy because of the harsh treatments. I was a late bloomer when it comes to masturbation, but now I push myself to watch porn, to explore my own sexuality not only to keep my sex drive appeased but also to make sure my body doesn’t shut off. In my mind, the biggest highs in life are love, sex and having orgasms. I consider it part of my therapy; it’s one of the ways I heal myself.
From friends to lovers
A few months ago, I got involved with someone new, a man I first met a year and a half ago. We were both on vacation — for me, it was the vacation you go on when you’re told you have three months left to live. So I was in the Caribbean with a girlfriend, trying to make the best of things, and we met a guy I’ll call John. We had a lot of fun together, and we all stayed in touch. Then, a few months ago, I got the chance to fly east to visit him. He had a girlfriend when we met, but that was over. The best thing is that he already knew everything about me — he’d seen me with the port in my arm, running around in a bikini, way too skinny. When I saw him again, it was the same friendship, only now I didn’t have to suppress my attraction.
When we ended up in the shower together, I was terrified; I still hadn’t shown my breast to anyone in broad daylight until that moment. The truth is, my breast looked mangled, and I ended up saying, “I don’t really have a breast on this side.” He looked down at it and said, “I don’t care!” Then he said, “Stefanie, look at me — I have one testicle! I had to get it removed when I was 3 because it never descended. We’re a perfect pair.”
Living life to the max
These days, John and I are taking things one day at a time, visiting regularly. Since meeting him, I’ve had breast reconstruction, and my breast doesn’t look dented anymore, though it’s not as full as the other one. Mostly, I’m trying to enjoy new love. Because as I see it, we all have a choice: You can wake up pissed off or you can focus on everything you’re grateful for. You have to open your mind and your heart and accept everything that is happening to you, good and bad. Right now, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m living a no-bulls--- kind of life. Just waking up every day is an orgasm — an emotional orgasm. I know there are more ahead of me. I live for that.