Sex & Relationships

"Here's Everything I Learned Dating with Breast Cancer"

I was 28 years old when I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Shortly after, my relationship fell apart. Here's everything I learned about dating while going through cancer treatment

Author Jana Champagne posing with long brown hair

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

You often hear stories about how tough times make relationships stronger, but that wasn’t the case for me.

I was dating my boyfriend Rob for six months when something big happened: I was diagnosed on July 28, 2016, with stage two breast cancer and found out I had to start chemotherapy immediately. I also learned that I had approximately 14 days until I would be bald from the chemotherapy, and there was nothing I could do about it.  

I was a healthy, fit, 28-year-old, with no trace of any cancer in my family. When my doctor called me with the news, I was hysterical about what I thought was a “death sentence” I had just received. I called a close friend who happens to also be a psychologist to tell her what happened and I couldn’t even spit out these three small words: “I have cancer.” That statement would haunt me for the next few months. As I ventured into the world of chemotherapy, oncologist appointments and uncertainty about the future, I also unwittingly stepped into a new realm of dating and relationships—or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Here’s what I learned from dating while going through cancer treatment.

Jana Champagne in the hospital getting chemo treatment

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

Your relationship might end

When I told my boyfriend, Rob, about my diagnosis, he very supportive at first, saying that the disease ran in his family, so cancer talk wasn’t new to him. Later, he would support me by saying that he wasn’t really a boob guy and showed me photos of women with beautiful “mastectomy tattoos.” This helped calm my mind about the potential future mutilation of my body.  I was terrified of a double mastectomy, mostly of the idea of someone cutting off my nipples. I hadn’t even had the chance to use that organ to breastfeed yet.  

The day I was scheduled to meet the surgeon and discuss my surgical options, my boyfriend was supposed to come with me. But the night before my appointment, Rob said he wanted to take “a break” until January—which is when I was scheduled to finish chemo—to figure out his “life and work.” I sarcastically said, “A break while I go through chemo, doesn’t that sound wonderful. What a great idea Rob, I’m sure my roommate would love that too, oh and my mom, and most of all, I want a break while I go through chemo.” He said he didn’t mean it that way, but there was no recovering after that. It felt like he was leaving me when I needed someone most.   

Seven more days and I would be bald.

You know that ugly crying we do, that they don’t even really let actresses do in the movies because it is so hysterical and ugly? Well that was me after we broke up. I was the biggest sob story you could imagine while talking to my best friends, who tried to calm me down, but how would they even know? Their long hair wasn’t about to fall out. They were still hot, and I was going to look like a bald old man. It wasn’t so much the break-up that bothered me, but the fear of being alone, ugly and sick. How is someone supposed to start liking a sick bald person!? Even though I had family, friends and a team of doctors around me working to keep me alive, my breakup made the diagnosis feel so real and I felt completely alone.

Despite how things all went down with my ex, I should really thank him for noticing my lump in the first place. We were spooning in bed when he knocked my breast and noticed a hard lump—which you could only see if I was lying on my back braless for my boobs to fall naturally to the side. I thought at the time it may be a lymph node that was swollen or something. A few trips to the doctor, an ultrasound, biopsy, and mammogram later I would find out it was a tumor 1” x 2.5” x 5” in size.

Jana Champagne taking a selfie at the hospital wearing a gown

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

Dating is hard—like really hard

After things ended with Rob, I gave dating a shot. I got back on Bumble and set up some dates, but kept my new life updates off my profile. I felt like I could never be honest, or tell people what I actually did during the day. Sometimes I would just talk about my job and act like I wasn’t on sick leave. These dates were my escape from reality where people didn’t ask how I was feeling or speak to me like I was sick. I used old and new photos online, as my wigs were fabulously thick and long: one wig takes six to eight people’s real hair, and I was still carrying a beautiful tan from the summer that hid my new ghostly complexion.  

I didn’t set any hard rules on when to tell people I was sick, it was just sort of on a need-to-know basis. If my illness somehow came up, I would state it on the second or third date. If you think it’s hard to put yourself out there in the first place, try feeling like you are literally under cover: I was masking myself under the wig and hiding what I did during the day. However the few times I was into guys, and really tried to put myself out there, many reacted by ghosting me, destroying whatever little confidence I had left. I felt so unwanted. 

You are probably asking, “Why is this girl even attempting to date?”, but like, was I supposed to wait for my chemo to be over!? The worst thing about cancer is how LONG it takes. Unfortunately, these dates didn’t go anywhere. Maybe I was too distracted or terrified by my doctor’s warnings about contracting an STIs while going through chemotherapy. Abstinence is lonely. Safe, but very lonely. I was later also advised from my doctor to not consume soy, limit red meat to two servings per week, and drink no more than four drinks of alcohol per week, as these would all increase my risk of breast cancer recurrence. But online dating without drinking is tough—how do you go on a first date without a sip of wine to relax?

Plus, I’ve found that you can’t say, “I don’t drink” without an explanation. People speculate things, they never just drop it. When men would ask me out for a drink, I found myself wondering if I wanted to use up my precious beverage experience that week on a stranger, or if I wanted to save it for friends. I learned to say, “Would you rather go for coffee, or for a walk?” I do, however, have a medicinal marijuana license, which can calm the nerves quite well. The thing is most people don’t—or can’t—smoke on a first date, and it feels like they judge you if you don’t tell them the reason you smoke up. Now, I’m comfortable with telling people; if they aren’t cool with it, it’s probably not going to work out. I’m becoming a more take it or leave it kind of gal.

Jana Champagne wearing a pink wig and mermaid costume

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

If you’re going to hook-up with someone, be prepared to explain your wig—or sleep with it on

On Halloween weekend, I drove up to Edmonton from my place in Calgary for a girlfriend’s birthday party. I was wearing a DIY mermaid costume with a green tight skirt, gathered at the hem to resemble a fin, a seashell bra, and to top it off, a very long, pastel pink wig—a fun escape from the brown wig I was wearing full-time.

While my friend was getting ready for the party, I chatted with her hot roommate, Ryan. I had just met him a few weeks before, and my friend had tipped me off that my feelings of attraction were mutual. Ryan was dressed up as Alan Jackson in the music video for “Chattahoochee” all because he had this silly lookalike mustache—which I was very into. (If you don’t know what this video looks like, it’s where Jackson is water skiing with a life jacket, ripped-up denim jeans and cowboy boots.)

We went out for my friend’s birthday dinner, then karaoke, then home to crash. Ryan and I ended up making out, which led us to the bedroom. I’m not sure if you have felt the nice caress of your hair while you go down on someone, but when Ryan reached for my hair, I backed up before he could touch it. He stated most girls like when he plays with their hair—but most girls don’t wear wigs. I just shrugged and said, “Oh, do they?”

I managed to keep my secret safe, until I woke up in the middle of the night sweating my face off. I had never slept with that $3,000 shoulder-length real-hair wig before, but I kept it on because I didn’t want to explain I was wearing it. I literally slept with no blanket, no sheets, trying to let the air cool me.

In the morning while we were making breakfast, Ryan had noticed the blue medical thermos bag that contained all of my post-chemotherapy shots to boost my immunity in the fridge. He asked what they were, and LMFAO-style, I responded, “shots, shots, shots!” paused, and then said  “Yeeeyaaaa!” Ryan asked if they were insulin shots, and my friend and I looked at one another and said, “Something like that.” I made it through another day like a normal person.

Later that week, I ended up telling Ryan that I was going through chemotherapy and that the shots were to help rebuild my immune system so they could hit me every two weeks with a fresh bag of chemo. He was shocked, but still wanted to see me.

Jana Champagne's nails discoloured from chemotherapy

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

You might not feel sexy, like at all

On my first official date with Ryan, he drove three hours from Edmonton to Calgary to take me on a three-part date. He picked me up at my house and we went downtown to a Christmas craft show, sushi, and then a theatre play. He went all out. Even though I was having a good time, I didn’t know how to tell him I was wearing a wig. I procrastinated until literally the last second before bed, as there was no way in hell I was sleeping with that thing on again. So, the words that came out of my mouth were: “Just so you know, I’m not some sort of special unicorn cancer patient that doesn’t lose her hair.” I came out of the bathroom with a toque on. His response took me by surprise, “When did you lose it?” he asked. I trembled, “Two months ago.”  

Having sex without any body hair is just plain weird. From cartoons to every romance movie, you see a man brush a woman’s bangs out of her hair, or grab her hair erotically while he kisses her neck. Well, picture this: me wearing a night toque with sexy undies. As we were getting intimate, Ryan pulled my toque off, and I immediately thought, Oh my god, now I’m like an alien. My sickness is real; I’m not in the fantasy world of having sex. It felt more than just being naked; it felt bare and cold. I couldn’t get used to it. I needed to keep my battle scars covered.

Jana Champagne with a shaved head smiling

(Photo: Courtesy of Jana Champagne)

An adventure can make you feel confident again

After my radiation ended, I decided to go on a three-week surf vacation to Costa Rica. I had ended things with Ryan; we didn’t live in the same city, and he turned out to be a jerk, so no loss. While I was walking down to the beach, I saw another tall, white, green-eyed girl with a buzzed head. What are the odds! We both stopped and looked at one another, in awe that we were twinning. I asked her why she had a shaved head. She explained that it was something she always wanted to do, but she had a corporate job that would not tolerate that sort of look. She eventually decided to quit her job, move to Costa Rica, and now had no excuse not to shave her head.

I couldn’t believe that someone would shave their head just because they wanted to be liberated. To me, shaved heads have always been associated with cancer, either having it or shaving your head to support it. I was so mesmerized that someone would get rid of their hair just to be liberated from society’s norms.

After meeting this woman, I had a new outlook. People were always telling me I was rocking the buzzed head, but honestly, I hadn’t felt pretty since losing my hair. I had been dumped, not asked out—or even hit on—in months. I thought, “Who cares what I look like?” and decided to just have fun. As soon as my “poor me” attitude changed, people started telling me I had the “pura vida” lifestyle. Pura vida is a saying in Costa Rica that means life is what you make of it. It’s about staying optimistic, happy and full of life, despite all the negative circumstances around you.  

With this carefree attitude, I decided to go on a hike to a famous waterfall in Puntarenas.

I met these Canadian guys who were jumping off one of the rocks next to me. After I left the waterfall and went back to town to have dinner, I saw the guys I had met earlier. We started talking about how much we all loved the town of Santa Teresa, and quickly decided we should go. I hopped on the back of the cutest guy, Drew’s, motorbike and off we went. 

The bike ride to Santa Teresa was probably the worst idea imaginable. Picture this: it’s past dusk and there are no street lights. It began to sprinkle rain, which quickly turned into a downpour. We kept hitting massive potholes—my butt literally started cramping from trying to hold on for this bumpy, 45-minute bike ride.

When we finally arrived, the first order of business was a few beers to take the edge off the stressful ride we just had. But by then, it was getting late and the hot guy I rode down with said he would share a bunk with me.

We crawled into bed, instantly cuddling and fondling each other in a hostel room that had a capacity of eight. (I made it 9.) We realize we couldn’t hook up in this top bunk, so we grabbed a blanket and headed to the beach.

As the storm was just off the shore, the sky was filled with orangey pink lightning. It was so beautiful. It was like we were in the middle of the storm, but there was no rain. Drew started kissing my neck, our hands racing all over each others bodies. We started to get into it, when I felt something poking my butt cheek. I reached my hand down, and shrieked. There was a crab right between my legs. Before I could say more than “crab!”, Drew grabbed a coconut and smashed the creature to pieces. Did that just happen and is this guy as crazy as King Joffrey in Game of Thrones? I wondered. 

I never thought my sex on the beach would be like that.

Your perspective will change

I’m still very single, and I’m not sure if that will change anytime soon. I am still dating on and off, but now at least I don’t have to hide anything—I feel secure saying, “I am a breast cancer survivor,” and then I quickly move on. Guys can take it or leave it. But I get pretty lonely. I just want to get on with my life and not let the cancer take all of the fun parts out of it. People have been interested in me, so I can’t say that I have no suitors, but I just have have no interest. I have a new qualities I look for now; I don’t want to have another guy run when a hiccup comes up.  

That being said, I’m still hoping a hot doctor will come along.

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