In Bustle's Braving BRCA column, writer Sara Altschule shares what it is like to date after having a double mastectomy to reduce her genetic risk of breast cancer.
Life after having my prophylactic double mastectomy — a surgery to remove my breast tissue to decrease my risk of developing cancer — in September 2018 has definitely had its ups and downs. It’s a little hard to feel ‘normal’ when you’ve just experienced a massive change physically and emotionally, but I’m working on it. I’m now four months post-op and I’m starting to get my Sara groove back. I can work out like I used to (minus the push-ups), I’m working full-time, and most importantly, I don’t have that 72 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer hanging over my head.
There are a lot of things I prepared to deal with after my surgery, like how I was going to physically recover, how I would handle it mentally, and how I could put my life back in order. But there was one thing I didn’t think about post-mastectomy — dating. Dating is hard enough when you haven't just gotten major surgery. But when you add on this whole BRCA positive situation — aka, my gene that suppresses breast and ovarian cancer has a mutation, which leaves me more likely to contract these diseases — it can complicate things even more.
I was in a long-term relationship for four years until one month post-surgery. Once I was a single gal again, I realized I completely forgot how to date. Even though I was acquainted with the world of dating apps, I knew that what I wanted out of dating now, at 31, would be totally different than what I wanted when I started dating my previous partner when I was 27.
Not only am I looking for certain qualities in a partner, but I look at the world with a new set of eyes (and boobs!). After everything I went through — finding out I am BRCA 2 positive in March 2018 and deciding to undergo a preventative double mastectomy six months later to reduce my risk of breast cancer by 90 percent — I realize even more how valuable and precious time is. And I don’t want to be wasting my time with some kind of fling — I want the real deal. I’m looking for a potential partner who will be able to go through the good and the bad together as a team.
I am already someone who gets pre-date jitters. But these jitters have been multiplied because it’s been a little hard knowing how to make my BRCA positive diagnosis part of my first date small talk. When my date asks why I moved back to Los Angeles from Seattle, I feel awkward saying off the bat that it was to deal with surgery. It’s so hard to avoid a topic when it honestly feels like an elephant in the room, or really, an elephant on my chest. It’s been such a big piece of my life for the past year — how can I not talk about it when I’m explaining who I am? But at the same time, it doesn't define me, and I don't want it to be a big part of the getting-to-know-you conversation. I also want to make sure I'm sharing it with the right person because it is a very personal topic.
The very first date I went on, I stumbled when I tried to explain why I left Seattle.
I knew I wanted to be open with people about my diagnosis. It rocked my world and changed me as a person, and I don’t want to hide that part of me. But how I was going to share this information and when I would share it isn’t a perfect science. And to be honest, I’m still learning how to do it. There’s a part of me that hopes my potential date will have Googled me and read this column, so there doesn’t need to be a big reveal.
The very first date I went on, I stumbled when I tried to explain why I left Seattle. I said I moved for a big surgery, then apologized that I had brought it up. "I know I know this isn't a normal first date topic," I said, explaining what my big surgery was. Driving home after the date, I was upset with myself that I had apologized for talking about it. I was actually not sorry for bringing it up. I’m proud of everything I’ve been through, so why did I feel the need to apologize?
I had to learn how to talk about my surgery and to effectively communicate how confident I felt about this decision. It took a couple of dates and a little awkwardness, but I started to find it easier to open up about my mastectomy. I explain that I recently had a big surgery (aka a double mastectomy) and if they want to know more, I share what it means to be BRCA positive and how I found out I carry a mutated gene.
Better still, my dates have all been super supportive. It actually allowed our conversations to be more than just surface level. In fact, some dates opened up about their own difficult experiences and it made for a much better and deeper conversation.
Sure, I’ve had some dates with men who didn’t understand what it means to have a double mastectomy. One person thought it was similar to a breast augmentation (short answer: no, it’s not), one made light-hearted jokes which I didn’t find funny, and one date talked about his fear of blood and surgery. But overall, I am happy I am sharing my story in the hopes of finding someone special.
I haven’t fully conquered the entire dating aspect yet. When it comes to sex and intimacy, I'd say I fall between the heart eyed emoji and the big eyed nervous emoji. I'm excited to start being close with someone again but I'm also nervous as heck. My body is different now, so I'm not quite sure how it will affect intimacy. One very unfortunate side effect of having a double mastectomy is that I have little sensation left in my boobs. It feels like I have a huge padded bra on when someone touches my actual bare breast. Weird, huh? Even though this stuff gives me a little bit of anxiety, I try to remember that this is all part of the journey and that it's the small price to pay for living a healthy and happy life.
Truth be told, I still have moments where I’m overly critical of my body since surgery. I still examine my new boobs every day to see if something has gone awry (so far, so good). They are supposed to be fully settled six months post-surgery. And of course, I have thoughts that go through my mind like, “What will someone think about my scars?” or “Will a future partner feel that stitch that hasn’t fully dissolved in my breast?!” I need to remember that this is my new normal now and that's it's OK to be a nervous and unsure. I’m learning as I go, but overall, I’m excited to be me again. Or even better, a new and improved version of myself.
Read more from Bustle's Braving BRCA column: