Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
I was 36 years old and single when I was first diagnosed with stage 2a melanoma. I was single by choice and by circumstance. I was living abroad in South Korea, where my pool of potential mates was limited. Not that I couldn't have dated a Korean man, but since, for me, the most important part of a relationship is deep communication, the language barrier kept my dating options focused on those in my transient (and often incestuous) expatriate community. This to say that cancer was not my biggest dating obstacle.
When my melanoma spread to a local lymph node (stage 3) and I had to undergo intensive radiation, I kept it largely under wraps. I continued to live my life as normal, with occasional flings and rarer romantic beginnings that petered out after a few weeks. Again, my romantic failings were due to my own choices and behaviors, and simply to not finding the “right” match, and not to the fact that I had cancer.
Fast forward to a year later, when my distant metastasis (stage 4) forced me to return to New York for treatment, and to live in my parents' home. When this all went down, I went very public with my diagnosis... I announced it on Facebook, as I couldn't just jump ship on the life I had built for myself in my adopted home without an explanation. I began to blog about my cancer - everyone I knew (and a slew of strangers) was aware of my diagnosis. Despite the grim diagnosis and treatment regimen I was facing, when I returned to NY, I signed up for both Tinder and OK Cupid accounts, not with the intention of falling in love (or even for sex), but just to be able to go out on a date and spend an evening, once in a while, with someone who DIDN'T know I had cancer. Just to have a night here and there where I got to just be Jen.
After just four immunotherapy infusions, I had a complete response; one set of scans later, I was NED. I didn't have cancer anymore - or at least it wasn't an immediate threat. My verve for dating was renewed, and now the biggest obstacle to dating was the fact that I was 40 and living at home with my parents. This, I was able to easily explain away as just having returned from living abroad for so long, still being in the state of deciding where to move to next. Yet with every promising connection I made on dating sites, I faced the dilemma of whether or not to tell someone about the cancer. After the C word (uttered after a few beers on an excellent first date) scared away a guy I really liked, I decided to keep it to myself unless thing were shaping up into a meaningful relationship. The next time I was on an even more excellent first date, I said nothing about my diagnosis... until the guy I was out with disclosed that he had his own bout with stage 4 cancer in his twenties. So I spilled the beans. We connected over it. That relationship went nowhere because, well, he turned out to be kind of an a-hole.
Then I took a trip to San Francisco, where I'd be attending a conference to film interviews with the top immunotherapy specialists from around the world for a documentary I have been making about melanoma. I decided that while I was there, I might as well have some fun, and so I did a local OK Cupid search and wound up on what was, perhaps, the best date of my life. During that date, I did discuss my diagnosis, and while he acknowledged the gravity of it, it didn't cause him to treat me any differently. That date turned into four magical days, and when I returned to NY, neither of us could let go. Thus began a long distance romance, with visits back and forth every four to six weeks. A few months later, we were dropping “L” words, making plans to possibly both move to LA.
As often as I casually slipped in caveats that my disease could come back at any time, I don't think that was ever a reality in his mind. And so when the melanoma did, in fact, come back, it threw a wrench into our beautifully budding romance. Ultimately, it was I who decided that I just didn't have the emotional energy to nurture the relationship. I have to live in the now, and it was unfair to ask him to put his life and plans on pause because the future, my future, had become more, well... hypothetical.
And then there was the whole “letting him off the hook” thing. Imagine you're watching a movie. In this movie, a couple falls in love and the chick gets cancer. If the dude breaks up with her, you, the audience, are like, "What a dick!?!" But in real life, he's a real human with real feelings who has been thrown this really huge, unexpected thing to navigate. And he doesn't know how to navigate it, because who does? And I, having my own gallimaufry of feelings to cope with, not to mention the feelings of the people who I have known for my whole life, didn't really have the capacity to deal with his feelings about my cancer. So I became a single person again.
As twisted as this may sound, I sometimes envy people who were already married with children when they received their diagnosis. I am so very aware that these people have the added intense fear of leaving the love of their life and their kids behind. But at least they can go through the trauma and chaos that cancer brings with the support of a partner. As much as I love and appreciate the love and support and roof over my head that my parents have provided, cancer has forced me to revert back to a child-like, dependent situation. I envy people who get to live their cancer as grown-ups; I really, really miss feeling like a grown up. And I really miss dating.
I still maintain my online dating accounts, though I did disconnect Tinder from my Instagram account, on which I have identified myself as a “food enthusiast, dog mama and melanoma warrior.” I still swipe and chat and flirt. But I rarely go on dates. I've never been one for “one night stands,” but even if I was, I wouldn't want to have to explain the scars on my body from cancer surgeries.
As for falling in love... I'm an extremely compassionate person, but I'm pretty sure that if I were a healthy person dating, a potentially terminal disease would probably be a deal breaker for me. And even if I were to meet someone who was a better person than me, someone who would just accept the cancer as part of the package because they thought I was that awesome, why would I subject someone to the tortures of loving someone who is sick?
My friends and I often joke that there should be a dating app for people with serious illnesses. The truth is, I wish this app did exist. I wrote that last sentence and I did a quick Google search, and there is ONE single website, “Prescription4Love” (LMAO) for which you can search by age range, location, interests AND diagnosis. Eff it. I'm gonna sign up, though I'm definitely not getting my hopes up. In the meantime, if any of you readers happen to know any hot, tattooed 30-40 something film and rock and roll enthusiasts with cancer in the NYC area, feel free to send him my way.