“I was left with a body that felt totally alien” What it's like to date as a 30-year-old woman recovering from breast cancer

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After being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing a mastectomy, Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe could no longer recognise herself. She lost her hair, eyebrows, lashes and sense of confidence. Yet she was adamant to join the dating scene again. She tells about the difficulties and triumphs of meeting someone new in a post-cancer world. 

“When I got diagnosed with breast cancer last year, at the age of 30, I stopped dating. Gone were the endless hangouts that had filled my colour coded google calendar. In their place were hospital appointments, blood tests, scans, and entire weeks where I knew chemo would wipe me out so much that I would find episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic too taxing.

My mastectomy seemed easy to deal with, the scar was a neat line, and my skin seemed beautiful and pearly white over the taut ladder of my ribs. Then came chemo and I lost my hair. Not just on my head, but my lashes, brows, the fine peach fuzz that makes your cheeks stroke-ably soft, and then my nails, and toenails. One by one every part of me that I could buff and primp into beauty fell away and I was left with a body that felt totally alien. When I looked in the mirror it felt like a stranger, bald and misshapen was staring back at me.

Being single through treatment meant that often after a hospital appointment I would come home, crawl into bed, and cry. There was no-one to spoon me and tell me that I was beautiful despite my resemblance to a pickled egg. Just my unforgiving mirror and myself. Every time I met someone new who was in the faintest way attractive I would lust after them.

Within minutes of striking up a conversation I was dreaming: imagining us having sex and I was always the me I was pre-cancer: long hair down to my bra line, two perfect perky breasts, and a pair of lustrous Liz Taylor eyebrows.  

As I transitioned from a life built around hospital appointments, back into the real world, I decided to start dating again, tufty regrowth hair be damned. The first date I went on was last summer.

We texted back and forth for a week, light, fun, flirty texts, and although I was nervous the idea that I might even get to awkwardly snog someone for a few minutes had me giddy with joy.

On the day my date was an hour late. As I began tearfully shoving my phone back into my bag, ready to storm home and cry my heart out, she turned up. There was a barely concealed grimace as she took in my hair and painted on eyebrows, then she stuck her hand out and I shook it stiffly. It felt like hell. When I got home she sent me a text saying ‘something terrible’ had happened and she couldn’t go on another date with me.

It would have felt better if she’d just said she wasn’t expecting someone so visibly sick, who’d so obviously just come back from the jaws of death.

From my former days of hectic dating, I knew I shouldn’t let one bad date put me off. And so over the next six months I sent over 300 messages across a variety of dating sites. I worked every angle, from fun wide eyed naivety to downright disgusting.

There was a single line on each of my profiles that mentioned that I had survived cancer and had one breast for the time being. I had seen no reason to hide the fact that I had gone through the year from hell. The rest of my page was full of the usual stuff: banging selfies, lists of movies that I hoped would make me look smart but not pretentious and witty chat about my pets. Out of these 300 odd messages I secured six dates.

I’d enter into conversations with men who told me I was hot, they loved my daring style, wanted to meet up, and then I’d get a notification to say they’d actually viewed my profile, and the messages would stop. One missing boob was holding me back.

When my hair had grown into a Mia Farrow-esque crop and my eyelashes were fluttering again I decided to test my theory out. I took the line off my profile, and waited. Part of me wanted there to be a drought in my inbox, just so I could think that it wasn’t a fault in me that repelled people, but some other intangible reason. But the messages began to roll in.

Hot guys wanted to hit it, mega babes wanted to snuggle. My Tinder blew up with people who wanted to meet me right now tonight and bang till dawn.

The first time I had sex after cancer wasn’t emotional. I didn’t cry. It didn’t feel like a movie moment. I didn’t take my top off because I wasn’t sure I was ready for someone who wasn’t a medical professional to see me like that yet. I just let myself kiss her and get lost in the moment and for the first time in a year I felt like a normal person.

But what I wanted more than anything was someone who understood I’d seen terrible things, that I’d passed out on the way to the supermarket and no-one had helped me, that I’d spent nights crying till I felt sick because I was so sure I was going to die, and could say “So what? You’re here in front of me now and you are beautiful and I want you in my life”.

Since then I only went on dates with people who knew up front about my uni-boob status. There have been people I’ve been with who didn’t care about me or my feelings, and it felt awful. It felt as awful as it felt before my whole life changed, if not worse, because now every time something bad happens to me a little nebbish voice in my head whispers “I had cancer! Now this?”

Then I met someone who makes me feel like a Carly Rae Jepson song and everything changed.

He makes me feel like he’s not pity f**king me, but that he wants what I have and that we can keep on thriving together.

After everything I’ve been through, I want to say it doesn’t just automatically get better, but it can be good now.

Someone out there is going to clutch the one boob you have, hard, and you’re not going to think about the other one at all because it’s gone, it’s over and you’re living in the now.”

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