In our era of swipe-left, swipe-right dating, there’s no perfect time to reveal your personal baggage. I’m talking about revealing long-buried secrets, like the failed marriage to your high school sweetheart or the mind-bending ex who messed up your view on relationships.
My baggage? I show up to every date with the other man in my life. One who, for years, I struggled to live with but who, ultimately, I just can’t live without. Someone who is close to my heart, but closer to other parts of my body. His name is “Fill”.
“Fill” is my ileostomy bag, a permanent bag, attached to my abdomen, collecting waste. It’s tricky enough to tell a prospective boyfriend you had cancer. It’s another thing entirely to explain that, after battling colorectal cancer, you live with a permanent ileostomy bag. How’s that for a can’t-resist dating profile post?
Yet, after multiple surgeries, therapy sessions and support groups, I proclaim myself a survivor.
I can’t distract from my bag like other types of personal baggage. Sure, there are ways to hide it. At first, I wore a special wrap to help conceal it. I realize now that no one notices it’s even there, even under a little black dress, unless I tell them. Still, it’s always right there, right up against my skin. It’s physical. It’s permanent. And, for some people, I suppose, it’s gross.
I get it. You just don’t see “bowel movements” up there with a hair toss and a come-hither whisper. But, as many couples eventually realize, awkward milestones like passing gas in front of one another are oddly relieving (pun fully intended). It implies a relationship has reached a state of shared intimacy and mutual comfort. But to deal with that on a second date? Not always fun or easy. And yet, it’s what I have chosen to do because, if you want me, you get Fill. We’re a package deal.
Humor helps. That’s why some friends encouraged me, years ago, to give my bag a name. At first, it was difficult to tell my dates about it. I felt embarrassed and insecure. However, I have been pleasantly surprised how accepting some of them have been. One guy jokingly made noises of his own when Fill started making his characteristic gurgling noises.
Before cancer, when it came to love, I had already come to the realization that serial dating was a waste of time, that I wanted to find a serious relationship and settle down. Almost at the same time as I had this epiphany, I got a phone call from my doctor after my annual colonoscopy; as a longtime Crohn’s Disease patient, this was part of my routine care. Only this time, the doctor asked if I could come to her office to discuss the results in person. She had never done that before.
When I got to her office, across the street from my lab, my eyes were already filled with tears. She gently but straightforwardly told me the bad news and I panicked, seeing my life flash before my eyes. At 32 years old, I had colorectal cancer.
For the next five years, I kept a razor-sharp focus on simply surviving. Dating? Forget about it. Of course, I got lonely. I thought back to the few dates I’d had with a promising guy right before my diagnosis. I told him about my diagnosis via text, and got an abrupt, “Well, good luck with life,” farewell, along with a cancellation of our upcoming date. The words devastated me. They made me think that no one would ever love me after cancer.
After my first major surgery, I had a temporary ileostomy. Fill, though he wasn’t yet named, was supposed to be a fling, not a mate for life. The bag was uncomfortable in every way. It took me months to find one that didn’t irritate my already sensitive skin. Many nights, I cried, thinking I would never learn how to live with this new part of me. My team of nurses at MD Anderson Cancer Center finally helped me find a bag that worked, and with my mom’s help, I got to the point I could put the bag on myself. A small, but significant victory.
I was so relieved when I traded my bag in for an internal J-pouch, which is a surgically created pouch that would now act as my removed colon. With the bag gone, I didn’t look terribly sick to the outside world, but I felt lousy and had other changes related to treatment. To my surprise, my body image challenges were still there, which I later learned is quite a common problem for cancer survivors.
I saw myself go from a fit woman who (more or less) liked her body before cancer to one who didn’t recognize herself anymore. I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes. My hair was falling out. Not anyone’s idea of a dream date. I was physically cancer-free, my bag was gone, but I was still saddled with insecurity.
Nonetheless, after watching friend after friend get married, I found the confidence to dive into dating again. My first date after I was declared cancer-free was exactly what I needed at the time. Following a few enjoyable movie and dinner outings, I began acting awkward. I was struggling to find the right way to tell him about my cancer. When I finally and tearfully confessed my past, I was relieved at his acceptance. At that moment, I realized that everyone has baggage. Mine just might be a little bit different.
Not long after this realization, intense stomach pains brought me to the ER, where my internal pouch was accidentally punctured during a colonoscopy, causing a life-threatening abdominal abscess. After this, I immediately returned to MD Anderson and my trusted colorectal surgeon. It was decided I needed emergency surgery, including creation of yet another ileostomy. My external bag was back, but I was alive. And my dating life was, once again, on hold.
It wasn’t until I went on a surfing adventure trip with a nonprofit group called First Descents that I was surrounded by other inspiring and amazing survivors who, like myself, had physical and emotional scars. Though my longtime friends were incredibly supportive as I was fighting the disease, this trip was the first time that I finally spent extended time with young people who understood exactly what I had gone through. They gave me the confidence to wear a bikini and to go surfing with the top of my bag showing, my scars on full display. The trip was life-changing in so many ways. It was there, among my cancer peers, that a new friend suggested the “Fill” nickname for my bag. It has stuck this day. It is crazy to think , after just one week, these people who started as strangers could help me become more secure with my body image and bag.
This trip and my interactions with other cancer survivors gave me the strength to put myself back out there and date again. Despite my ileostomy. Despite my scars. Despite my bag. Now when I date, if I like a guy, I tell him about Fill.
I now work for the Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, where I get to tell my story and encourage others not to wait to see a doctor if they feel something might be wrong. I am also on the Young Adult Advisory Council at MD Anderson and help plan the Center’s Cancer Survivorship Conference. I have even participated in their annual body-positivity fashion show, to demonstrate to others that you can be fashionable and confident, even with an ileostomy bag attached to your body. Working with the public to help prevent cancer or helping those recently diagnosed, especially young adults, is like living a dream.
I’ve come to realize my views on appearance have evolved. Prior to my cancer, I would look at a guy online and be attracted solely based on outward appearance. I also wasn’t spared from my own critical gaze. While generally happy with my appearance, I used to pick apart my hourglass shape. Now, I think my curves are beautiful.
I want my future partner to think so too, as well as love the other less-than-beautiful baggage I carry. I need someone who will be supportive, someone who would be there for me if I ever get sick again. I know there are good guys out there who will accept me for who I am. That now includes the bag and ileostomy, which was made permanent in December 2016.
I never expected to still be single at 37. I didn’t have a choice in developing colon cancer, but I did have a choice in how I decided to manage complicated and painful treatments, as well as the countless side effects which followed. Despite the cliché, I believe everything happens for a reason, and cancer certainly changed my definition of love. Love is being vulnerable and unconditionally honest to yourself and the partner who complements your life.