Dating and Breast Cancer
In this episode, four different people explain their diagnoses and how they approached dating after breast cancer.
Shawn is a nurse who lives in Kentucky and has had two breast cancer diagnoses.
Suzette Brown is a stand-up comedian and founder of NYLaughs, a nonprofit that produces free comedy events in public spaces to inspire audiences, enrich the lives of New Yorkers, and connect people through humor. She is also the creator of #StrongBlackBoobs, which aims to increase breast health awareness and heighten self-esteem among breast cancer patients of color.
Jenne lives in Philadelphia and was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27.
— Last updated on April 29, 2022, 8:35 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello, thanks for listening.
If you’re a single person going through breast cancer treatment, dating is probably the last thing on your mind, especially if you’re adjusting to any changes in your body after surgery, or experiencing unpleasant side effects like nausea or diarrhea.
Still, once you finish your main treatments, dating might seem more possible, but still make you feel nervous, excited, curious, or even terrified.
You may wonder if your prospective date will think you’re attractive. You may worry that your wig will come off if someone tries to run their fingers through your hair. You’re probably wondering when is the right time to tell someone you’ve just met about your diagnosis and ways that your body may have changed.
To offer some real-world insights, The Breastcancer.org Podcast asked four people from across the United States — three women and one man — about their diagnoses and how they approached dating after breast cancer. Their stories, while far from typical dating tales, do seem to indicate that there’s hope, fun, and some wonderful, empathetic people out there.
First, meet Shawn, a nurse who lives in Kentucky and has gone through two breast cancer diagnoses. After her first diagnosis, the man she was dating dumped her.
Shawn: My name is Shawn. I am 54 years old. I was 43 when I was first diagnosed, it was right after my 43rd birthday, and I had triple-negative breast cancer. I chose to get a lumpectomy and do chemo and radiation. I lost all my hair. And then I was diagnosed again with a local recurrence in 2013, and I had bilateral mastectomy with a DIEP flap and chemo again and again lost my hair. So, here I am 11 years later and doing fine.
When I was diagnosed the first time, I had been divorced for two years, and I had been dating a guy for about a year. And we had fun together, but he probably dumped me about three days later after my diagnosis. And I remember thinking, “That is so rude.” It wasn’t that I was upset that he dumped me so much, because I don’t think that I was in love with him, but it was the rudest thing I could imagine. And in hindsight he probably did the biggest favor of my life, because had he stayed with me during treatment, I would have felt obligated to stay with him and it turned out that was quite a gift when he dumped me.
By the second diagnosis, I had married someone. He stood by my side, and he gutted it out even though he was not comfortable with all of the things that were happening to my body and to me. He is a wonderful man, and I met him while I was doing chemo the first time. And it’s a very unlikely story, and I have to tell you I do believe that God helped me through that and He made those things happen. Because when I was first diagnosed and my boyfriend dumped me, I was a mess, like most people. I was scared and all I could think about was cancer.
It took me about two months to get my head under control and just pray and give it over to God. And I got this strong message that I would say yes to everything. Say yes to all the fun, say yes to any enjoyment you can get. I’m a very social person, and breast cancer initially took some of that away because I was sick with the chemo. I was very fortunate to have been surrounded by friends, girlfriends and family and people that love me that helped me through things. It would’ve been a terrible time to look for a relationship, but it was a wonderful time to look for entertainment to keep me distracted from cancer treatment.
Jamie DePolo: Suzette Brown is a stand-up comedian who lives in New York City. During chemotherapy, Suzette wore a Wonder Woman costume and broadcast online comedy routines from her chemo chair, despite frowns from the nurses when she adjusted her ring light and set off the infusion alarm because she moved her arms. Suzette wasn’t dating anyone when she was diagnosed, but she was actively looking. She wasn’t comfortable sharing her age, but wanted us to know she’s looking for a man between the ages of 45 and 55.
Suzette Brown: My name is Suzette Brown. I live in New York City. I have stage IB/stage II ER-positive, HER2 cancer.
You know, a doctor told me when I was diagnosed with cancer that I actually have an old white lady’s cancer, and I was like, "What does that mean?" I mean, does it mean that it’s not aggressive, curable, and I’ll look great in turquoise, like what does that mean?
I decided to do a bilateral mastectomy because my mom actually had breast cancer and she died 30 years ago, and even though there is no genetic connection between our cancers, supposedly… I mean, it’s still too early to tell. There’s not enough testing that’s still been done on all the genes, so you never know, but I got cancer on the same age as her, and so because of her breast cancer I decided to just do a bilateral. I only had cancer in the right breast, and I had lymph nodes removed, and out of 10 lymph nodes, they found that I had cancer in two, so yeah. So, I did a bilateral.
I’ve gone through six rounds of chemo. I lucked out. They wanted to give me four and they were like, "You're doing so well we will give you two more," and I was like, "Hooray, hooray, hooray."
So I am undergoing radiation, which is a whole other thing. I mean, I’m actually more afraid of radiation than chemo because of the side effects of what it does to your skin and things like that. I actually signed up for a trial, proton therapy versus photon therapy because there are so few Black people in clinical trials like it’s like 6.9% according to the National Institute of Health, so I decided to sign up for that. So, I didn’t get the proton, I got the photon therapy, so I’m doing that right now. So, it’s like a job. It’s five days a week I go, but it’s very quick. It’s five minutes or whatever. My theme song is Bruno Mars’ 24 Karat Gold. So radiation lasts about like two to three repetitions of the song and then I’m out, so I think by the time it’s done people on that floor will be so tired of that song. And I’m sorry Bruno Mars, but… because that is now my song, because it goes, “It’s showtime. It’s showtime.” I’m like, "It is. It is showtime. I am here for my radiation treatment." It is showtime, so yeah. So, that’s my background.
I was adamant about trying to find doctors that had patients of color, or I felt comfortable with, so I went to three, four, five… I think five plastic surgeons, or something like that, like five hospitals or whatever. So like half of New York saw my boobs, right? Half of New York’s seen my boobs, right? It makes you very… it’s kind of erotic.
I went through this whole thing. I got these beautiful boobs, and I’ve named them Venus and Serena because they’re champs.
I was Black and single before I got cancer… I wasn’t dating anyone. It’s hard as a Black person anyway… I mean, studies have shown that we are the last people picked. Also, I came from a background of television, so a lot of the people that I met were gay, a lot of the men, so it was like there was no dating prospects there. And now that I have breast cancer, I won't be meeting a lot of men in chemo. I mean, I tried, but it’s like they don't have the throat cancer chemo next to the breast cancer chemo. It’s just completely separated from the lung cancer chemo, like you're not meeting men.
The struggle is real. I was actively trying to find somebody. Who says cancer has to stop you from looking, right? Now that I have cancer, I mean, I feel even more invigorated because I’ve got great boobs.
Jamie DePolo: A native of Philadelphia, Jenne was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 20s. Her diagnosis made her nervous about dating, but she eventually warmed up to the idea of meeting someone.
Jenne: My name is Jenne. I am a 32-year-old Philadelphian. I'm a young breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in 2015, and I'm four and a half years out of my initial diagnosis.
I was single. I was warming up to the idea of dating right before being diagnosed, and I think that I got a little discouraged from dating right after being diagnosed because I felt, "Oh, man, this is going to make things, like, 20 times harder now." So, no, I wasn't dating, and I got a little nervous about dating right after being diagnosed, as well.
I began warming up to dating when I realized that even though my cancer diagnosis was life changing, it didn't mean that life was going to end, and life would still continue on, despite the diagnosis. So, I got inspired just by talking to friends and family and getting encouragement, and realized, "You know what, I could still go out there. Maybe this new person that's going to come into my life will be very understanding of my situation and my scenario." So, yeah, I had the jitters at first, but I think with encouragement and just stepping out there, it can happen.
Initially, right after treatment, I was really obsessed with getting back to normal. So, you know, getting a job. I had to stop employment to be able to go through treatment. So, getting a job, working again, saving up money to move out.
I was 27 at the time. So, I had money saved, but I had to use that to kind of live off of in the meantime during treatment. So, saving money back again. Being a young Millennial, being able to just network and meet people. So, I think that it was immediate. It was something that was on my checklist, if you will.
So, I jumped right back into it. I didn't go on any apps. Most of the Millennials my age go on, like, Tinder or Bumble. I did try to go on one, and it was a really bad experience, so I stopped, and I just began to go out to public places. Of course, this was pre-COVID.
Jamie DePolo: Officially diagnosed at 24, Bret Miller, of Kansas City, didn’t know that men could develop breast cancer when he found a lump in his breast when he was 17 years old. Bret describes himself as an open book when it comes to his diagnosis, and his openness helped him filter out potential romantic partners who would be put off by his experience with breast cancer.
Bret Miller: My name is Bret Miller. I am the co-founder of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition and founder of the Bret Miller 1T Foundation. Our goals for both and missions for both of those groups are to build the awareness for men, throughout the world, that men can get breast cancer, too. We’re a support system for all, if anybody needs help, guidance, just has questions of what they’re getting ready to endure, we’re there. We have men from all over the world, all different stories, all different journeys throughout the way that we can always connect somebody to another person.
I was 24 when I was officially diagnosed.
I was 17 when I first saw my lump. I went seven years with no diagnosis — no correct diagnosis, I should say. When I first found the lump when I was 17, it was senior year of high school, and I went to two different doctors, one at the beginning of the football season, beginning of senior year, and one at the end of the senior year to get just a physical for football, shots for college. Brought up the lump that I just randomly stumbled across just watching TV one day, just did a lean back, like stretch across and then felt this lump. And both doctors not exactly saying the same thing but close to it, that it was a calcium build up, it would dissipate and go away. Nothing to worry about.
The reason why it took so long was I didn’t have health insurance all throughout college, and you know, tail end of high school and then all throughout college. And then a few years out of college I’d been working at a country club and I did have health insurance, but I wasn’t sick sick minus the common cold, or maybe hurt myself lifting weights, or at work, or something like that. There wasn’t anything pressing that I thought I needed to go to the doctor. But finally, parents urging me, asking me if I still had that lump that they knew about because they were at the doctor’s office and they knew about it. And I said yeah. My parents were like, "Well, you’ve had health insurance for a while, you should go get a physical, when was the last time?" I was like, "High school," it’s been quite some time.
So, at the urging of my parents is when I went to the doctor's to get the physical, get it all checked out. And the doctor was pretty much out the door, I had to stop him because he was like, "Yeah, you have anything else for me just let me know," as he was leaving, and I was like, "I’ve had this lump under my nipple." Mind you, doctors won’t perform a breast exam on a male unless they know you have a family history. They just won’t do it because of the small percentages, and even after being diagnosed I asked the doctor that helped get me diagnosed if he would consider adding it into the physicals, and he basically just told me, based on statistics, it’s just not worth their time to take that extra 30 seconds to a minute to do a breast exam on males, which is a little frustrating. I mean, we’re making some headway, but it’s still taking some time.
Yeah. So, at 24, I got sent to get a sonogram and a mammogram, not knowing that I was doing a mammogram that day, all in the women’s clinic. Walked in, I was greeted by name, never been there before, apparently the only male on their docket for the day, but I had to do a mammogram. The doctor that was there just said that it would save time so I didn’t have to come back in, take more time off work, you know, do this and that. I think that she knew but not once, ever, until I actually received the call from the surgeon that removed the lump was breast cancer thrown out there. Not once did any doctor along the way say breast cancer, so I just assumed it was this calcium build up. Even when I met with the surgeon, he was like, "Yeah, based on the time that you’ve said you’ve had it, and based on what these scans look like, it does look like a calcium build up, but as long as you’ve had it and it hasn’t gone away, I just prefer to take it out," and that was that.
I got the call the day after from the surgeon, didn’t say, like, "Hey, we’ve got to discuss the pathology reports," which, I also don’t remember that it was going to be sent off to pathology. I guess it was made after the decision, after the surgery, they got it out and I think I was still on medicine, coming out of it, so they might have said it and I just don’t remember it. I remember my parents knew. But he goes, "The preliminary pathology reports are in, and it’s breast cancer. I haven’t fully read the report, but I’ll read it and get back to you in about three to five days," and that was it. Like, there was no, like, "Do you have any questions?" It was just straightforward, hung up the phone, and that was it.
I thought it was a joke at first. You know, I was in my car. I wasn’t driving anywhere, but I sat there for a little bit and all I could think was "Well, the lump's gone, there can’t be a whole lot more that I would have to do." Like, I was trying to get my head in the mindset rather than going down a dark hole and then going WebMD and finding all the bad answers. I just tried to stay as positive as I could. I called and told my dad. I was like, "Hey, I’m heading down to job number two, it’s going to be busy down there. I won’t have time to discuss everything," but I let him know and I was like, "Please don’t tell mom because she’s going to call and ask a thousand questions, and I don’t have any answers right now. I’m still in a little bit of a shock, but we can discuss it tonight when I get home and we can go from there." I think five minutes passed and my mom called.
So, she calls, and she asks all these questions, and I was like, "I don’t know. He just said that… he just barely skimmed through it and just wanted to tell me what it is and would get back to us in three to five days." Needless to say, it was probably a better thing that she found out in enough time because we were in the office the next day meeting with that doctor to get his full opinion on everything, and he was straight-up full-on double mastectomy, there’s no way around it. It’s going to be this. It’s got to be that, and I was like, "Well, how many of the surgeries have you performed," and he was like, "You’d be the first one on a male." And I was like, "Thank you. Thank you for your time, but I think I’m going to get a second opinion."
We got set up with another doctor. He was the same way. He said a double mastectomy, but we could do the mastectomy on the right side and then come back and do the one on the left side because at the time that’s what the procedure was for a male. Luckily, the morning of the mastectomy surgery, he got a call from his friends at Johns Hopkins and MD Anderson, and they said do not treat men just like women, only do the single mastectomy and then revisit after some treatments and so on. So, I had a single mastectomy.
The Oncotype DX test said that I would benefit from having chemotherapy, four rounds of chemotherapy could drop my chances by 10%. I had a 22% chance over the 10-year period of cancer coming back, and I was like, "If I can drop this as low as I can, that’s what I’m going to do." So, I opted to do the four rounds of chemo. Very little side effects. I lost my hair, more body aches. I was never nauseated, and the body aches was only really because I forgot to take the steroid pill on like, the second or third treatment or something. It just totally slipped my mind. Chemo brain. You know, I took them shortly after and it started kind of helping out, but I tell everybody I got extremely lucky throughout the whole thing and I know others aren’t, you know. Barely being diagnosed as stage I and only having a couple rounds of chemo, not having much side effects.
Doctors there were like, "Well, you know, it can be an age thing, it can be your body. It’s just everybody reacts to it differently." I did do five years of Arimidex. I was started on tamoxifen, within the first month or so, I had so many side effects that I was just like, I need off of this. So, they pulled me off of it, and they started me on the Arimidex, and honestly, I didn’t really have very many side effects from it, so it was good.
I know that everybody always asks, and everybody’s always like, "I don’t know if it’s too persona," and stuff. I will talk about it if somebody asks. It’s better than my mom just blurting it out that it was brought up about fertility and going through chemo at such a young age, they don’t know what was going to happen. So, yes, I did bank some sperm. Luckily, I did not have to ever use it. I do have a baby girl. She is 20 months old now.
Jamie DePolo: Suzette, the New York comedian, isn’t dating anyone now, but she uses dating apps and, in her, words, she’s trying. She also felt she should have practiced telling potential dates about her diagnosis.
Suzette Brown: Am I dating anyone now? Well, I mean, I just say… well, COVID… I mean, COVID is really hard, but breast cancer is hard. No, I’m not dating. I’m trying. Am I dating anyone now? I’m trying to date people. I guess part of what prompted me to take on this dating crusade is I just got ghosted by this guy who had cancer, and the thing is like… I know, ghosted takes on a whole new meaning when you've got cancer, right? It’s kind of like, ooh somebody’s like what’s going on, but no. I mean, I’m on the apps and I was really excited when this guy told me he had spinal cancer, but I think I got so excited that I didn’t tell him I had… I couldn't relate in that way. I couldn't be honest enough. It was out of left field, so I was asking a lot of questions about what are you doing with your health, and have you changed your food, eating, and then it turns out that his mom had breast cancer, too, and I was like, "Score."
I’m like, I’ve got a guy who will know and understand cancer, but I was too… I don't know. I guess I came off too weird, and he just unattached from me like not soon after one or two texts and a conversation, so yeah. I’m trying to date. I’m trying my best.
I was really shocked when that guy told me that he had cancer. I was so, so shocked, and I didn’t… I wasn’t ready for it, but the thing is I should’ve… I think when it comes to dating and stuff like that, that there is a way that you need to practice and stuff like that, and I should’ve practiced because I actually did end up… COVID has been sort of a boon in some ways, like I never used to get dates. I mean, I never got farther than a couple of texts, or whatever, but I actually got a guy to ask me out during COVID, I guess because people are just so desperate to go out for any reason, so okay, I’ll stop the texting and I’ll ask her out. But when I went to meet him he was older than his photos, and the energy was different, and I actually knew… I mean, we both knew it wasn’t going to be a match but we still had the date. And the thing is, before the date I was really, really concerned because it was after my second chemo, and you know how they say after 16 days after your chemo your hair falls out?
So, it was day 11, day 12, day 13, or something like that, and I was so afraid that I’d go on this date and that my hair would fall into his drink, but the whole idea is I think telling… I should’ve just used him for practice. That’s the whole idea, is like if I knew it wasn’t going to work, I should’ve been like, "Yeah, I have cancer. I have polio. I have measles. I have rickets. I have Ebola." I should’ve just gone for it, you know what I mean, because if you get your mouth practicing what to say and how to say it, and how people react, so I mean I should’ve just not been so blasé. I should’ve used that as an attempt to practice, because I think it might’ve been better with this guy that I met that might’ve been great, because he had spinal cancer, his mom had breast cancer. I mean, I’m sure he could understand it, but the thing is like does someone who had cancer really want to date somebody else with cancer? Because everyone’s cancer journey is different.
Jamie DePolo: Jenne told us a little bit more about her bad dating app experience. She also explained why she didn’t put anything about breast cancer in her profile, and how being diagnosed changed what she was looking for in a person to date.
Jenne: It was Tinder, and the gentleman that I met through Tinder, oh, man, his profile... it's so interesting. These apps allow you to curate who you are, what you want to show. So, everything about this person was amazing. You know, he was a music historian, and he had a podcast show, and he was well read, and I was just thinking, "Oh my gosh, our conversations are going to be great. These are things I'm interested in, too."
So, I decided to meet him at a local bar in Center City, and you know, just go in the daytime. There were people around. Make it really quick, maybe 30 to 45 minutes, and see where it would go from there. And upon meeting him, he was socially awkward, and it was just so interesting. It was just so different from what I imagined. So different.
So, I wound up cutting the date really short. Like, maybe 15 minutes in, and I decided not to continue on. So, I was very disappointed initially. I think I had heard so many stories about people meeting nice folks through dating apps, and I thought, "Oh, my first try, I'm going to nail it," you know? But it can be a little discouraging. So, after then, I started to retreat just a little bit.
As far as letting someone know if you... or letting the apps know... put on your profile if you've been diagnosed or not. I chose not to put that on my profile for the short time that I had it up. I chose not to, and I... You know, I think that it really depends on the rapport that you build with the person that you're meeting. You know, for some people, when they hear the word cancer, they get afraid, and they freeze, and they think the worst, and I think that finding someone who sees you as a human first can be really hard, but it's very possible.
There's no wrong or right time, actually. I think you should use your intuition. Most women — pardon me — most patients will know when to say, when to share, and if it's the right person, they will make you feel comfortable enough to say, "I want to talk to you about something, and I just want to let you know, I'm a cancer patient, or I had cancer." I did wind up saying that to two dates, and one gentleman, it was just the sweetest response. He actually shed a tear, and then that made me shed a tear, too. Very sweet person.
And you know, we're no longer dating, but we're in touch, and we're friends, and that is what I look for. That lets me know that they're genuine people who are sensitive and open to learning more or sensitive to just knowing. Yeah, I think the keyword is sensitive. Some people, they'll be like, "Well, you don't look sick." Really? You're going through chemo, or you know, it's... yeah. Some people are just... they don't know. I usually... I was just like... I think, before, what I did do was show them, like, my port scar.
And the gentleman who shed a tear, he made a really funny joke. He says, "Wow, you can tell people you had... you got street cred. You know, that's your scar from, you know, street cred. Like, you fought." I thought it was really funny. That's nothing like my personality at all, but he was able to make light of something that was a bit heavy to talk about, and I really appreciate that. I really, really appreciate that. It made it easier for me to talk about it with people, as well.
I would say that the type of person that I was thinking about as a potential date did change. I now, as I did right after being diagnosed, seek out someone that's a bit more mature, and currently, I'm 32, but I do find that older people who are bit older, maybe two or three or four years older than me, are better at understanding my situation, perhaps because life has just, you know, happened to them, whatever it might be. Cancer, a parent getting cancer, someone passing, or added responsibilities.
And I'll say, for sure, the other gentlemen that I did date, they were older than me, and they were just more understanding. So, definitely maturity and understanding are what I look for now. I think when I was younger, before being diagnosed at 27, I was just a little bit more carefree and not as discerning, but as life happens, you become more discerning, and you're very selective about what you let into your life, and cancer, it sort of added to that.
Jamie DePolo: You kind of grew out of your party girl moment?
Jenne: Yeah, definitely. You know, it's funny, I don't even... would I say I was a party girl? My friends would always have to drag me out of the dorm to go to a party. I was too busy writing my thesis or too busy reading or looking at a documentary, But yeah, I do think... I think COVID has made me want to party again, and yeah, and probably my cancer diagnosis makes me want to party again, too. It comes in waves.
Jamie DePolo: Of the four people we talked to, Shawn had the best dating app experience.
Shawn: After the first chemo, one of my friends said, "You know, you seem bored, you’re not able to get out as much, I think we need to get you on a dating site." And I laughed and I said, "Oh, yeah, because bald nauseous women are in such high demand on dating sites." I had no plans for a relationship. I did think it might be entertaining to distract myself with something besides cancer, cancer every day, because I was real sick of that. And we made up my profile, and it was a far-out profile that said I was into Gregorian monk chanting and all of this bizarre stuff that I knew if someone answered it would either be able to be funny or they would just think I was crazy.
So, surprisingly, I got an enormous amount of responses. We would sit on the couch, my girlfriends and I, and read them and just laugh, they were so entertaining. And then I got a response from a gentleman who was cute, and he seemed very articulate. And I said okay, I’ll meet you for a drink. So, I only did a drink on my non-chemo weeks, which is not healthy and probably not good for you, but I did. So, we met at a bar, we had a drink and I liked him, so he asked me out. We went on the first date and I liked him. And we went on the second date and he kissed me goodnight. And that’s when it hit me, "Oh, my gosh you’re going to have to tell him. Because if he tries to run his fingers through your hair..."
And so, I’m sitting in the basement with my best friend, and we’re trying to figure out how to tell him. And her fish guy is there cleaning the fish tank, and he must’ve overheard our conversation, because he popped up and just deadpans, "Third date. Tell him on the third date." So, I said, "Okay, we’re going to tell him on the third date." So, the third date came around, and I told Pat I would meet him there. I would drive my own car because I didn’t know how well this was going to turn out after I told him, so I wanted to have my own car to go home in. And we’re having dinner, we’re having a great time. It’s the week before Derby, and in Louisville, Kentucky, Derby — it’s bigger than Christmas here. So, we’re having dinner, and I said, "Oh, next Friday is Oaks Day, and they have a survivor’s parade for women who have survived breast cancer. And I’m going to be walking in that parade because I had breast cancer and I’m finishing up chemo and I’m bald."
I put it all out there because I was so nervous, I didn’t know how else to get it out there. It came out in a big blurb. And the first thing he did was to look at my hairline and then he finished his forkful and he goes, "Okay." So, he didn’t make it a big deal, and we continued to date. And then in June his project ended. He was in Louisville doing project work, and in June his project ended and it was time for him to leave and go back to his home in Alabama. And I said, "Oh, well, it was really great spending time with you." And I never thought I’d see him again. And fortunately, I was surrounded by women and by family who supported me and they loved me. And they loved me so well that it didn’t crush my world that he wasn’t going to be there.
I also had made a commitment to myself after cancer to be genuine and to not do the things in my past. I think a lot of women, we do this as women, we acclimate to the person we’re dating or, you know, we make small changes to make them comfortable. And I just wasn’t willing to do that anymore, because life is too short. So, I said goodbye to him, I started dating a friend that I had known previously to having cancer. He asked me out, and we started dating, and he asked me to marry him one night in July. And I was like, no. He was a really a nice guy, but he wasn’t the right guy for me and I knew it, and I told him no.
And then I get a phone call the next week, and it’s Pat from Alabama. And he said, "Hey, why don’t you come down here and watch a football game with me and my friends?" And I said, "My hair’s about an inch short right now, and it’s hot, and I’m not putting that wig back on." And so, he said, well that’s okay. And I said, no. I said, "Here," and I took a picture, I’m in my car, and I took a picture. I said, "Full disclosure, you need to see what you’re getting in to," so I sent him the picture. And he goes, "That’s fine, I would like for you to come." So, I went down there and met a bunch of his friends and we had a great weekend, we had a wonderful weekend. And then it was about two more months after that and he decided he was going to move to Kentucky, because his job would allow, he would fly a lot for his job and as long as there is an airport in the city he could do that.
So, he moved to Kentucky and then it was just a crazy love story, it was wonderful. And we waited a year after that to get married because we wanted to make sure we weren’t crazy and we weren’t just doing something impulsive. And we got married a year after that October in 2011, I think, and then 2013 is when I had the recurrence. And yeah, I married my best friend and I would’ve never met him if it weren’t for breast cancer, because I would’ve never had the courage to really be myself and then meet someone that really fit me instead of me trying to fit them, if that makes sense.
Jamie DePolo: Bret was dating someone when he was diagnosed, but it didn’t work out, though they’re still friends. Since men having breast cancer is so rare, Bret’s story was in all his local media, so he didn’t really have to tell potential dates about his situation. The story was everywhere.
Bret Miller: I was dating somebody at the time of diagnosis. You know, I wasn’t going to hold anything back, so I told her everything that was going on and what was going to come about. She was there the morning of my surgery, and you know, eventually, a couple months later and stuff, we just mutually parted ways. We’re still good friends to this day, but she had a bunch going on. I had a bunch going on, and the time wasn’t there. And it didn’t end on bad terms, but it was just one of those things that, you know, we thought it wasn’t going to work out, so we just went our separate ways. But like I said, we’re good friends today.
When it came to dating somebody and then telling them if I have breast cancer or not, I can see where for a lot of women it’s personal. You know. Getting diagnosed with breast cancer almost always means that you’re losing a breast, or both breasts, and for women and society and stuff, that’s how woman is defined, is breasts. And it’s sad that that’s the way that it is. I understand how personal it is, and it’s a very sensitive subject for a lot of women. So, I totally get that, and you know, everybody approaches this different. I would be an open book. I told anybody straight up.
I wasn’t really looking to date anybody at the time, partially because of, you know, going through treatments and not wanting to expose myself to any diseases or anything while my blood counts and everything were low, going through the chemo treatments. But I worked in the service industry — I was bartending at the country club that I’m at — so a lot of my time was taken up by work and if I was free, it was normally on a weekday night, which is not the prime time to try to meet anybody. But, you know, working in the service industry, in the bars, we have such a close-knit family down there that, typically, if you’re going to meet somebody, it’s because you’re working with them.
I also got interviewed by so many different podcasts, news outlets, papers, magazines, everything, you name it, around the area that I felt like my story was out there for a lot of people, so if I met somebody, it was always like, "Oh, wait, yeah, you’re the 24-year-old male… you’re the young male that was diagnosed." You know, things like that. So, my story was out there, so I just figured there’s no point in hiding it. Embrace it, you know, and if somebody was turned off by it or anything, well, clearly, they’re not a match.
So, in meeting my wife, we met at the bar that we worked at. I was bartending and she started as a server. If I remember correctly, she asked around to a couple of the other coworkers when she started, asked about me. I’m pretty sure they told her about my diagnosis because it was about a year, a year and a half, almost two years after my diagnosis is when we first met. So, I’m pretty sure she knew, and it was kind of funny because the first time that we ever really interacted, she ran down to the bar with her number written on a piece of paper and literally, like, threw it at me and ran away. Looking back on it that, yeah, she must have known, but she didn’t care either way. She wanted to get to know me as it was.
Jamie DePolo: Suzette, Bret, Jenne, and Shawn also shared some advice on dating after breast cancer. Suzette says to forget the past and focus on being proactive.
Suzette Brown: I think the dating advice would be just to be proactive about it. Be proactive and look for people that look at cancer as a life experience. And cancer in general, you've got to take it day by day. You can't think about the past. You've got to squash any kind of feuds you've had with people. It doesn't matter. The past doesn't matter. It’s living for the present and knowing that the future isn’t guaranteed and that you just have to make it day by day by day by day, and you have to happiness as each day goes, and you have to make yourself happy, and yeah.
Being proactive is the most active thing. Again, like I latched onto that guy, 55 and spine cancer, mom with breast cancer. I thought that was perfect, and so in my realm. I’ve got to go find… where else can I look for a 55-year-old with spine cancer? So, I’ve got to find out which building in MSK the spine cancer people go. I’ve got to go wait outside of those buildings. There’s so many buildings, I’ve got to wait. I’ve got to wait in front of another building at MSK for where all the male cancer patients go, like where do they go? It’s not just about waiting outside of the bathroom, right?
The struggle is real, and you have to keep actively trying. I thought with cancer this would be sort of a last chance at love, you know, but I’ve got great boobs, so I’ve got to keep it going. I’ve got to keep it going, and I’m aroused. I mean, cancer made me more aroused, you know, so I can't let this be a last chance at love, and my body is amazing! New boobs. I’m telling you! Tell your audience! I mean, all my breast cancer sisters out there, you have to have some fathers or brothers. I’m giving you a shout out, okay? Men love boobs more than the bald heads and cancer. That’s another bit of advice. Men love boobs more than bald heads and cancer. Men love boobs more than bald heads and cancer.
Jamie DePolo: Bret’s advice was aimed at men who’ve been diagnosed, but his thoughts on being open could resonate with women as well.
Bret Miller: So, you know, of the many men that we have come across through the coalition, there’s only been, I want to say, five or six that we’ve met along the way that have been diagnosed around a 10-year age gap from when I was officially diagnosed to where I am now. Yes, a few of them have asked. We’ve discussed… I’ve just told them, I was like, personally, for me — and it’s different for everybody else — I figured it’s better to be an open book rather than try to hide something. You know, just straight off the bat. And that’s how I think you can grow and move on with somebody right off the bat, rather than if you’re holding back for a week, a month, or anything and then it comes out, and then they can be completely taken off guard, and then they want to leave, and then it’s kind of, you’ve invested that time. I think if you’re going to invest that time and you want to, then you just need to be straightforward. So, yeah, for the few that have come across that are around the same age, yes. That’s what I’ve told them, is just be open with them.
Jamie DePolo: The main point of Shawn’s advice was to surround yourself with love.
Shawn: The advice I would give about dating with breast cancer is to be your genuine self and don’t settle for anybody that doesn’t make you laugh. And don’t date as a goal of having a relationship. But the best advice I could give you is just surround yourself with people you love and that love you and that support you. I had a relationship with all these women and my family in my life that supported me, and that gave me the things I needed the most, so dating was a distraction. I feel like dating with the real intent to find that meaningful relationship might’ve been harmful for me, but dating as a distraction and a way to interact with people was probably my best strategy.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer heavily affected how I looked at potential dates. Originally, I remember thinking, "Well, nobody’s going to want me now." And I thought, well, okay, if nobody’s going to want you, you might as well be yourself and be genuine with everything. Because it was freeing in some respects, because I just didn’t care about the long-term relationship aspect of dating. I just wanted to have interaction with people, be social. And I was going to be myself, because breast cancer did do a very good job of teaching me that life is short and you should enjoy it and it should be genuine.
Jamie DePolo: Jenne’s advice also focused on love, mainly on loving yourself.
Jenne: The tips that I would give to a breast cancer patient who is thinking about dating, one would be not to rush. Two, know that who you are now is different than who you were before, and embrace that. It's okay. You can make it a part of a new personality. This is an opportunity to paint a whole new picture, you know. And it can seem scary because you don't know what the outcome is, but don't even focus on the outcome.
Be present. Be mindful, and love yourself first. Adorn yourself. Embrace who you are at the moment. That means if you have only one eyebrow or one eyelash or no hair currently and you want to go out to a happy hour, do it. Go ahead and do it. Put on your best shoes, your best dress, whatever, your best outfit, and just go ahead and do it, and it's not for anyone else but you. It's not for anyone else but you.
When you decide you want to share, I would say use discernment. Think about the comfortability you have with the person that you're sharing some... don't be upset if the person has a negative reaction, because it could be possible that they might. And then if they [don't], that's a huge cherry on top, and you've got really good potential or a really good friend right there, someone who's very able to understand your current situation.
Jamie DePolo: The Breastcancer.org Podcast would like to thank Suzette, Shawn, Bret, and Jenne for sharing their stories. We hope you enjoyed them.