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Aisling Carroll Headshot

How I Date After Cancer

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With an impressive amount of Cha Cha blush on my cheeks, I lie down flat on my hardwood floor. As I hoist my legs up against the living room wall, I admire my new skinny jeans. This pre-date pose ensures I won't swoon around Scott, literally. It wards against blackouts.

This is date number three with Scott, and he's early. Mid-pose, I hear the tap tap outside my window, bring my legs down from the wall and open the front door. His handsome, bulky self stands before me with two motorcycle helmets in hand.

"Hey, hey. I thought we'd ditch the car, get on my bike and zoom up to Sonoma for lunch instead." His little boy enthusiasm evokes my big girl fear.

However, not wanting to be appear anything less than carefree and spontaneous -- the way I used to be, pre-cancer -- I say, "How fun!" And think, "My sister will kill me."

45 body-rattled minutes later, Scott and I arrive at our romantic wine country destination. Inside the Harvest Moon Café, I vomit all over the red stone tiles.

Six years ago, at 32, I was diagnosed with a rare, early stage ovarian cancer. I rocked up to chemo sporting a khaki, military style jacket with Usher's "Yeah!" on the radio. I was going to kick this cancer thing, while using this time off from my corporate job to get my speedboat license. Funnily enough, that's not how things worked out.

How sick I became shocked me, but I'm still here. Thankfully, there are no signs of cancer, but the chemo took its toll. As a result, I don't rush to a job, but refer to the hospital as "my office." At my office, I'm a star; I hold records for blackouts due to a compromised autonomic nervous system.

As I claw my way back to the well world, I date. Compared to other risky activities I've engaged in that involve danger and uncertain outcomes (read: chemo), dating isn't too scary, but it is complicated.

For dates one through three, I try to pass myself off as any other busy 30-something who hits the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness after a day of back-to-back conference calls with Mumbai. I do this to let him get to know me as just another girl, and to give myself the treat of just being that girl for a night.

Although this approach beats full disclosure on date one -- which involves answering questions about my fertility and mortality -- there are definite pitfalls. Here are the top five things I try not to do when dating after cancer:

1. Cry when the waiter asks, "Can I tell you tonight's specials?" Having lived in the sick world for years, where lacking the strength to readjust the comforter at my feet has been the status quo, the well world can emotionally overwhelm and humble me. When Nathan and I sat in a red velvet booth on our first date, I welled up when our waitress Jeannie described the butternut squash. Yes, this was a normal reaction given the circumstances, but for Nathan, who was in the dark regarding these circumstances, I was definitely not normal. Now, I try to cry before dinner.

2. Drink too much. Before I lean across the table to answer, "Yeah, I'd love another margarita," I stop myself. I'm either one drink away from just quelling my nerves or one drink away from (messily) confessing my whole story. When I stopped counting my drinks at an Irish wedding, Ed started spinning me around the dance floor to "can't read my, can't read my, no he can't read my p-p-p-poker face." Then, with my arms over my head, mid-poker face from him, I decided this was the best possible time to blurt out, "I had cancer. Crazy, huh?" I have no memory of what happened next.

3. Fail to establish a cut-off time. How long can I stay out for before I crash? Ninety minutes? Two hundred? Before I walk out my front door, I clock this number and don't move beyond it. For me, it's usually about one hundred and twenty minutes. I always know when I've gone past my cut off time because I hungrily eye my date's biceps. Can he lift my 150 pounds out of this place?

4. Forget I'm on a listening tour. Meeting Louis at six thirty last Tuesday evening, I wore my date uniform: a belted, charcoal grey dress with low heels. He assumed I had just come from my executive office downtown, which was the purpose of the uniform. He didn't assume I spent the last eight hours lying on my bedroom floor with a pillow over my face. Or crying into the sleeve of my hoodie on my National Enquirer-strewn couch. As a result, he asked me insane questions, such as, "Any vacation plans?" To ensure I didn't get caught having to answer his web of well world questions, I didn't give him the chance to ask in the first place. Instead, I went on my very own listening tour; I lobbed question after question at him, from the moment we sat down. Every twenty minutes he said, "I need to hear something about you! I've been talking the whole time," but I stayed mum and smiled mysteriously. He told me I was amazing.

5. Wait too long to tell him. The experts say you should tell some of your health history by date three or four. They're right. Although I'm good at sitting in my car and practicing my full disclosure script on the back of Chevron receipts, I am much better at procrastinating the delivery. With Josh, it was shortly after date six when he left me a voice mail about getting tickets for us to go see Jay-Z in Miami. Even though I liked Josh, I was struggling with a trip from my bed to the couch, let alone San Francisco to Miami, and my voice wasn't strong enough for the phone. So after three days of not hearing from me, he showed up at my door bearing a piece of cheesecake and a pout. "Your excuse better be good," he said as he brushed past me. It was, of course, but I learned not to let things get to the pout point again.

The other thing I've learned is that dating after cancer isn't always about falling in love, but it's always about falling back into life. And that is sweet, even when it's complicated.