Jenna Felder's Survivor Story
As a single gal in a modern time, I often compare the experiences in my life to those of Carrie Bradshaw and her three fantastic friends on Sex and the City. While I am not drinking cosmos every night and buying Manolo Blahniks, there have been many times in my life that certainly play out like an SATC episode, with their uncanny parallels in dating, relationships and friendships.
Much like Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte and Carrie, I have stories I could tell about bad dates, being stood up, being fixed up, being broken up with and being the one to do the breaking up. Add online dating to the mix, and there are a new set of circumstances those ladies never had to deal with.
One of my favorite (and by “favorite” I mean I would rather be impaled in the eye with a hot poker stick) dating experiences was when the guy I was seeing for three months took me to Atlanta to meet his family – and then broke up with me the first night we were there. I was 33 years old, and decided I had had enough. That incident was the cherry on top of a rotten sundae made up of too many bad dates, and I decided to put some space between the dating world and me. I cancelled any online dating memberships I had, told friends I was no longer interested in dating and began to think about a life that didn’t involve a long-term romantic relationship.
In 2013, five years after beginning my self-imposed dating “sabbatical,” I was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer. I found a lump in my left breast while doing breast self-exam, and like so many young women in the same situation, I opted for the bilateral mastectomy. At just 38 years old, I knew it was my best opportunity to reduce my risk of recurrence over my lifetime.
An MRI revealed an additional tumor that the diagnostic mammogram did not pick up and surgery found the cancer had spread to exactly one lymph node. That lone lymph node won me six months of chemo and all of the side effects that go with it - hair loss, exhaustion, hot flashes, weight gain – just to name a few. But chemo also gave me the gift of time and the opportunity to think and reflect.
It didn’t take me long to decide that when I was done with treatment, I was going to do a bunch of stuff I had put off - some of which maybe scared me - and anything I’d been saying I wanted to do but never had actually done. I called it my 2014 Post-Chemo Tour, and it included riding a roller coaster for the first time, going to the top of Willis Tower in Chicago, taking an improv comedy class and …. getting back to dating.
About four months into my eight-month breast cancer saga, I got an email from a dating site saying I had a message waiting for me. At first, I was surprised until I remembered in a moment of weakness during my dating sabbatical, I had turned back to the dark side and filled out a profile on a free online dating site. (Free, because why would I pay for any more dating disappointment, right?) I never went out on any dates during that moment of insanity, but the site (because it is free) kept my profile active.
So here was the moment of truth. I had the opportunity to put my plan into action, and I took it.
What followed were a few weeks of fun emails with a nice guy I had many things in common with. Even though I was still in treatment, I didn’t mention it because it’s a hard thing to bring up when you first meet someone. Emails led to him asking me out, to which I said yes. And then I had to cancel. And he asked me out a second time, and I said yes. And again, I had to cancel. But, there was a third invitation to go out, and again I said yes, and again I had to cancel.
It wasn’t because I didn’t want to go. I continued to cancel because I physically felt awful. I was exhausted from chemo, and it was all I could do to get to work and be moderately productive during the course of the day.
With the third cancellation, I decided it was time to tell him why. We actually had never spoken on the phone (because that’s how society rolls these days) and had only emailed and texted. So I sent him an email that started with the following sentence: “You know how people have crazy dating stories they share with their friends? Well, here’s one for you.”
I proceeded to tell him about my diagnosis and treatment plan, making sure to explain that I was going to be fine, but I needed until the end of the year (another two months or so) to really feel like myself again. Instead of running in the opposite direction, never to be heard from again, he responded by expressing his hope for me to feel better and telling me he would stay in touch and reconnect at the beginning of the year.
On Jan. 10, 2014, I met Gavin for breakfast at a local spot downtown. We chose a 10 a.m. date because I had to be at my first improv comedy class at noon. If the date was bad, it would only be two hours, and I had an out. (Hey, don’t hate the player. Hate the game).
On the way to meet him, I sent a text reminding him he likely had more hair than I did. I thought it was a good way to break the ice for both of us. I know being able to be my authentic self in that moment put me at ease.
It’s been almost two years since that day, and Gavin and I now live together. We share a life, have a dog, love to travel and discuss plans for our future. He is a wonderful person and truly everything I always said I was looking for in someone (and some things I didn’t even know I wanted or needed). He is funny and smart and compassionate and understanding. And our first trip together was to the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago. Another item crossed off my tour list.
Gavin and I recently went to a wedding of some of his college friends. Someone asked me what was it about Gavin when we first met that made me want to continue to date him. I paused and then explained it wasn’t about Gavin. It was about me. Having been through what felt like hell, it was my time to flourish, put my feelings first, embrace the person I was before breast cancer and the person I am after breast cancer and take some chances.
The result was meeting a wonderful person – who overlooked my lack of hair and my tissue expanders and liked me for the person I am. I am grateful every day for meeting him when I did, and I realize the timing was no accident. I had to have all of those other life experiences – including breast cancer – and develop an authentic relationship with myself. What followed was more than I ever thought possible.
As Carrie Bradshaw would say, it is “just fabulous.”
Jenna lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. She recently took her improv classes to the next level by joining the theatre troupe "as per usual." She still believes chemo is tougher than grad school.
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You are not going to look like you used to, and that is OK. With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.