Pre-cancer, the tube was fun to me. Like a museum, or an art gallery: in more ways than one! Not only was it full of artefacts and fascinating things to look at all – all different and all diverse and all with a long, hidden history – it was also a place I kind of imagined I would meet my husband. Come on, we’ve all done that – had the secret desire to meet someone on the tube, in a museum, in an art gallery. A perfect setting for the filmic introduction to your like-minded life partner.
The way the tube fantasy goes is that my unknowing love is reading the same book as me. We both notice – then I smile and hold up my copy of Zadie Smith, or Margaret Atwood, or this really good ironic collection of poetry made up from things Trump has said.
I’ve heard some people hide their erotic fiction on a kindle so they can inconspicuously read it on the tube. I actually do this but with Jacqueline Wilson books and the Princess Diaries series. It’s not that I’m embarrassed, I just think it would narrow my chances of making my tube fantasy a reality. However, if I did see a bloke reading a copy of ‘The Story of Tracey Beaker’ on the tube I think I’d probably quite fancy him.
If you’re wondering where I do hide my erotic fiction, it’s in a folder on my laptop that I’ve named ‘Hillaire Belloc poems’.
In my fantasy, after exchanging grins at reading the same piece of critically acclaimed yet perhaps quite obscure but also relevant literature, the tube pulls in at some stop and empties. The space next to me becomes free and my train love points to the seat next to me and mouths ‘Can I sit there?’ I nod.
‘How are you enjoying it so far?’ he asks, as he plonks himself down whilst giving me lots of personal space.
‘Well, when we were held at Highbury and Islington for ten minutes I got quite impatient but it’s been a good journey since then.’
He laughs, because of my excellent, dry sense of humour.
I laugh, because I’ve got away with him thinking I was making a excellent, dry joke when I was just flustered and didn’t realise that he was enquiring about the book, not the journey.
‘I’ve actually only just started it,’ he says, turning the novel over in his perfect hands. (clean fingernails, maybe an ironic hand tattoo. Not a moustache. That’s a bit MySpace.)
‘But I’ve just finished reading a fantastic novel by obscure yet well respected author, it’s about something obscure yet well respected and it won the obscure yet well respected prize. Have you read it?’
Instead of doing what I do in real life – lying and then looking stupid when I say my favourite bit is ‘the bit when they do the thing’, I look really interested and interesting and also attractive and say
‘Oh? No, I haven’t. It sounds amazing. I’ll add it to my list – what’s it called?’
And I get out my phone, and pull up THE ACTUAL LIST I plan to one day have on my phone of all the books I want to read/have read. It’s actually a table, not a list. It has two columns. I hold it out to him so he can type in the title of the book into the first column, the wishlist – but he also marvels at the books I’ve already read, in the second column. He writes the obscure yet well respected title under ‘The Power’ and next to ‘The Corrections’ and then he gives me a perfect smile (clean but slightly crooked teeth, moisturised lips, no moustache) and says ‘I don’t have a list on my phone for you to write on – but I’d love you to put your number in, if that’s cool with you.’
And the fact that he’s asked me if it’s cool with me makes it EVEN COOLER FOR ME.
And I put my number in, and he looks at my name and he speaks it aloud, like he’s testing out what our wedding vows are going to sound like.
‘Rosa.’ I say back to him. And then we’re at my stop. And we smile at each other for a few moments as the beepbeepbeepbeepbeep of the opening doors accompanies this lightbulb moment in both of our lives.
‘It was nice to meet you,’ I say. I stand up, without getting my scarf caught under my foot or anything. ‘Maybe see you again sometime.’
‘Definitely,’ he says. I smile one more time, turn and then disappear through the doors. Maybe as I stride towards the exit I catch his eye again through the window.
And then obviously he texts me, we go on a date, it goes really well, I have sex with him that night if we feel like it, or if we don’t in a couple of dates time, we find out we click perfectly, my friends and family love him, he’s a feminist, he’s not an actor but he has respect for what I do, his job is lucrative yet also not too stressful… blah blah blah we eventually decide to become life partners and we have the best ‘how did you two meet’ story EVER.
Some might argue the reason my fantasy will not come true is because of the absurd amount of specific detail that runs through it, or the fact that it doesn’t take into account what I’m actually like in real life – which is not smooth and also not able to hear very well on the Victoria line, so I’d actually probably just be shouting ‘SORRY WHAT???’ at him.
But putting that aside. I still got cancer. And the tube became a place where I wasn’t allowed to go due to the high risk of catching something due to my low immune system. And when I was allowed to get on it, I refused to make eye contact with anyone in case they shouted ‘THAT GIRL IS WEARING A WIG. I CAN TELL! THAT MEANS SHE MUST BE BALD. SHE MUST BE A REPTILE. BURN HER.’
I would like to break down the reasons why getting cancer stops your sex and dating life IF you are already strolling around the planet as a singlewoman. Many people find out their diagnosis with a partner/spouse/fiance next to them, and that is a different story – one that I can’t tell. I was coming off the back of a very single couple of years where I met some good and not so good guys, did a lot of swiping, a lot of sitting in my best friends’ rooms saying ‘okay, I know he sounds like a bit of a knob but I think he’s just damaged’ and a lot of reading obscure yet well respected books on the tube.
When I was first diagnosed I didn’t even think about dating. Tinder Boy’s last message read ‘If you need me to be there, I will be.’ But I didn’t. I needed my friends and family. I needed the security of people who knew me at my best to catch me at my worst. I wouldn’t be able to handle hospital visits with someone I’d been on one date with. And then when I got better… what then? Would we have been ‘seeing each other’? Even though he would have only been ‘seeing’ me in a really crap backless hospital gown, with no hair, bad skin and a nice big bag of chemo hanging out of my arm? No. Not the time for dating.
However, a couple of weeks after my second round of chemo, I went out to a bar with friends for the first time since diagnosis. In the queue for a drink I got briefly hit on by some guy. And it was the best thing ever. After weeks of seeing the grey skin and baby-chick down on my head in the mirror, I didn’t think that I would ever be chatted up again. I was wearing my beautiful auburn wig – smoother and shinier and longer than my real hair ever was, and my new jeans and red lipstick. I hid my PICC line under my colourful shirt and was buzzing at the idea of being out and about in the real world. No one knew I had cancer. No one needed to know I was undergoing chemotherapy. I looked around the bar and I wondered if anyone else in this bar was hiding their diagnoses under a wig, or a long sleeved top, or a layer of make up that was slightly darker than their skin tone. Would anyone really care if they found out that’s what I was doing?
I imagined getting into a situation where I went home with someone – not that I’d ever really done that with a complete, random stranger. (OK, once. It was really bad though. He’d done loads of cocaine and his idea of pillow talk was asking ‘you’re not one of those feminists, are you?’)
In this pretend one night stand I imagined taking my wig off as we got undressed and the look of absolute astonishment or discomfort on this fictitious person’s face. How they’d have to be sympathetic – because you have to be with cancer. And then we’d have a sympathetic shag where he’d be trying not to look at my egg head, and I’d be trying to prove to him that I was still a real woman, even with no hair. I’d be better off going home alone and having a comfortable solo night with my Hillaire Belloc Poems.
I know being bald doesn’t mean you’re no longer feminine, or sexy, or worth a shag.
I know a guy who makes you feel like that is absolutely not worth a shag.
I know we’re all flailing under the patriarchal system that tells us women must have flowing hair on their head and absolutely none on their legs or vagina (but arm hair is fine) (but you mustn’t have a snail trail) (but on a man it’s sexy) (moustaches in the 21st century are currently not acceptable on either gender).
I know that no person in their right mind would have sex with me just because they felt sorry for me and my cancer diagnosis.
I know that the way I feel about my change in appearance is part of a self-esteem issue I had pre-cancer, and that issue is part of a bigger issue that we should all fight to change.
But it doesn’t really matter what I know. Because as with any huge (unwanted) life change, rationale goes out the window, and through the door comes a marching band of poisonous thoughts and feelings. Some of the most beautiful women I’ve seen have shaved heads. But some of the most beautiful women I’ve seen can also pull off leather trousers. And denim thigh highs. And peplum. I looked a bit like one of them tampons with a skirt when I wore peplum.
The same incredible friends that tell me I don’t look like an egg would tell me I didn’t look like a tampon (I did, it’s fine, the peplum top in question was red and white, and whilst I’m all for the removal of the taboo around periods, I don’t think the way to do that is to dress up as one).
I don’t think people really feel like they can see someone with cancer as an object of desire. They don’t want to start anything in case they stop feeling it, and the uneasy guilt that comes with breaking up with someone, or ghosting someone is multiplied by 10 when you have to do it to a cancer patient. Because their life is already, let’s face it, pretty shit. You don’t want to kick them while they’re down. Also, you’ll look really bad if they told any of their friends.
But actually, in reality, that’s not how it works. A cancer patient’s resilience is the thing that’s multiplied by 10. Their sense of perspective is completely changed.
Listen pal, my body is literally breaking up with me. My immune system doesn’t think things are really working out anymore. My left ovary cheated on my right ovary with a huge tumour and in a couple of months they’re moving out to live together, leaving my right ovary on its own, and she doesn’t know if she’s going to be able to have kids.
If you want to go out with me and then change your mind, it’s completely cool – I have bigger things to worry about. Like my obscure ovary-related metaphors.
As you know, I’ve now received the all clear, and am enjoying my life again. In terms of dating and my appearance, I’m getting there. I’m on the road to enjoying life no matter my relationship status and how a man makes me feel. I’m starting to feel a bit sexy again. Will I return to Tinder? I don’t think so. Honestly, I can’t be bothered to work out the best time to let them know what my 2018 has been like. Straight away, in my bio? Or at the first date? Or nine years into our marriage, when I finally admit I do have Twitter? I don’t think my train fantasy will come true – because I’m actually now able to validate myself and my great taste in books without needing a stranger to do it for me. I’m sure I’ll find someone eventually who will understand my situation and see it as the making of me as a strong, happy person, rather than something that has fucked me up. But if I don’t.. I’m not that bothered. And for those of you well-meaning people who keep telling me I should get back in touch with Tinder Boy… I did, about a month after his very kind last message and was left on read. But that’s absolutely okay. Because my cancer journey was not a film, or a romantic tale, or an obscure yet well respected novel. It was, amongst many things, a bit of a wake up call of how I viewed myself and how that needed to change if I was going to be okay. And I don’t mean in terms of cancer.
I can’t end this blog in any other way than this diary entry I wrote on the 13th March, about a month and a bit after my diagnosis and a week after I lost my hair:
I think I have always worried that I’m not classically pretty. Or that I’m not meeting a standard of beauty. (It’s harder for me to copy and paste this onto the blog than it was to admit I had sex with someone who didn’t identify as a feminist) I think every human at some stage in their life has felt that way about their appearance. And people deal with it in different ways.
Some people fight it, some people embrace it, some people learn to love themselves no matter what they look like, some people never do.
I don’t know which one of those I’m going to be.
But I think that this experience, something as simple as losing my hair, and being a bit bloated and puffy and grey and not being my own idea of ‘beautiful’ will help me realise that my own idea of ‘beautiful’ is a load of bollocks.
I’m not going to clutch at a cliche and say it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Because my inside is currently pretty ugly too, and kind of the cause of this particular self esteem crisis.
However, the places I was looking for approval pre-cancer are no longer the places to go. Approval is a stupid thing to be looking for anyway.
I’m still capable of all the things I was capable of before, I’ve still got great chat and a banging arse and as a bonus I can now show off about those things because I’ve got cancer and you can’t be up yourself if you’ve got cancer. I’m joking. But you’ve got to shout about the things that make you love yourself when your body turns on you. Fuck that – shout about the things that make you love yourself REGARDLESS of anything. I apologised for feeling good about things so much before I was ill and started feeling bad about things. As soon as I recover, I will never apologise again.