Last spring, I was approaching my 50th birthday, and I was single. Getting back into the dating groove after COVID-19 lockdowns had been more challenging than I’d anticipated, but overall I was happier at 49 than I’d been in earlier years. I loved my family, my friends and my job.
I had lived most of my life with a less-than-favorable body image, but now I had settled into a set of realistic expectations for my skin suit. Gravity would continue to win. I may or may not see my collarbone again. I was content with that.
But the pandemic had illustrated how important it was to have someone to rely on for emotional support. And as I aged, I imagined it would only become increasingly important. So I resumed swiping for a life partner. My profile laid it out clearly: I was seeking something long-term and serious, with someone relationship-minded.
My expectations for dating were about the same as they were for my body: realistic. But then this cute, stylish guy matched with me on Tinder and instantly messaged me, and his message wasn’t just a “hi.” Instead, it was thoughtful and showed he had actually read my profile. After a few days of messaging back and forth about travel and music, he asked me to dinner.
When I arrived at the restaurant and he stood to greet me, he looked at me like there was an aura of heavenly light surrounding me and cartoon birds singing from atop the bar. Normally I’d find that kind of reaction a little creepy, especially when combined with the incessant compliments that followed. But there was something innocent and affable about him that I liked.
So we kept dating. He was attentive, frequently texting and even calling me out of the blue for long conversations. The compliments about how pretty I was kept flowing.
Some light internet stalking revealed photos of him with his soon-to-be ex-wife, who was equally gifted in the mammary department. He’s a boob man, I realized, but I hoped his interest in me was wider reaching.
Then I got a call from my doctor’s office that a seemingly inconsequential and minuscule speck in my breast, found on mammogram, was cancerous and needed to come out. Suddenly I was thinking about all the ways my skin suit could change — how much of my breast would go, if my hair would fall out, what kind of scars I’d have, and how long I’d be around to feel sorry for myself.
And, less crucially, how the boob man would react.
Soon after, I got better news: “It’s stage 0. Precancerous.” I’d be around to feel sorry for myself for a long time. The surgery department offered two potential dates — I could get it over within a couple of weeks, or wait a couple of months. I thought about the guy, how this would be too much too soon, and how pushing the surgery back could give us a chance to progress. I took the second option.
“I’m sorry,” he said sympathetically when I told him. “But you’re going to be OK?”
“It’s small,” I assured him. I really didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. And life continued on as normal. He held my hand when we went out and got handsy (boobs first) when we went back to my place. After a couple months of dating, it felt safe to express how I was feeling.
“I don’t know where you are with things, but I really like you,” I said, using the least scary language I could.
“I took myself off all the apps two weeks ago,” he responded. “I don’t want to date anyone else.” He kissed me. Those magic words were everything I needed to hear. I didn’t fear my surgery. I wasn’t going to go through it alone.
My mom flew from Philly to Los Angeles to be with me for the surgery and after. It was done on an outpatient basis, and went smoothly. Back at home, in my living room, my mom casually asked me if the guy had called to see how I was doing. I realized he hadn’t.
But I’d texted him to let him know I was fine! I explained. I hadn’t given him the chance to wonder. My mom nodded. I knew that nod.
For a few weeks, I had to wear a compression bra day and night. It was comfortable, but it had the sex appeal of a life jacket crossed with a straightjacket. I barely glanced at myself whenever I took it off to shower. What was the point when I was still healing?
Then one day I removed that hot Velcro number and took a close look at my boob. I hadn’t considered that once the bad stuff came out, the rest of me would have to be cinched up like a drawstring bag. My skin suit was decidedly irregular. Boob 2.0 was shorter, squarer and pointed down at 90 degrees.
“I wasn’t expecting such a difference,” I told the surgeon during my follow-up.
“At least you don’t have cancer,” said the doctor.
She’s right. I mean, in terms of sexiness, cancer probably rates lower than a square-ish boob, though I think it’s close.
I hadn’t seen the guy since the weekend before my surgery, and the truth is that he had been less than attentive since we were last together. I initiated all contact. He was slow to respond. I made excuses for him. He was dealing with divorce stuff, and his ailing mother, I told myself. I tried to ignore my gut.
I was also preoccupied with one of my closest friends, who had started hospice after a fierce battle with colon cancer. Between my own recovery and keeping watch over her, I had little energy for anything else.
Then she passed, and I was both relieved that she was no longer in agony and crushed over the loss. I was searching everywhere for hope and a sign that things would be OK. I texted the guy to tell him the news. No response.
Two days after her funeral, I texted him again. I wondered if he was doing that thing some guys do where they act like jerks instead of doing the dirty work of breaking up. If so, it made me angry. I let him know. He called.
“Robyn. We’re not in a relationship,” he proclaimed, implying that expecting a message of condolence after a friend’s death, or a check-in after my surgery, was unreasonable.
“We’re dating,” I said.
“I told you I’m not ready.”
“When did you say that?”
“When I told you I didn’t want to date anyone else.”
This was when I had to give him an English composition lesson. It was our first and last argument. Now I was going to face 50 minus a chunk of boob, a beloved friend, and a love life. Too many things to mourn in one summer.
But I could start my 50s by listening to my gut again, which meant noticing red flags even when they flew at half-mast on a windless day, and then heeding their warnings. My own health scare and my friend’s death had shown me that time is too precious to waste on someone who won’t pay me the respect I deserve. Maybe intuition is a muscle I could exercise, one that would strengthen the more I used it.
Though I was nowhere near ready to reenter the dating pool, I worried about Boob 2.0. Eventually I’d have to be naked in the presence of another person who was not my doctor or mammographer. I thought about going the tattoo route and camouflaging my odd boob with flowers and birds and butterflies. But most likely, I was just going to have to explain it. And that prospect terrified me. Still does.
I celebrated my birthday many times over with friends and family. Even without a partner, I had to acknowledge that being alive and healthy was something to be grateful for.
Then came radiation treatment for five weeks. As the days went on, the side effects got worse — intense fatigue, skin irritation, sore nipple, stabbing pains. I vented to my mom.
“The doctor said I’m tired because all of my body’s resources are going into healing my boob.”
“That’s a weird place for all your energy to be,” she laughed.
Suddenly I imagined my radioactive boob having superpowers. Superboob. I liked the sound of that. I could use Superboob to my advantage. For good or evil. I’d choose evil and inflict a second circumcision on the guy, except I wasn’t going to ever see him again, and I was pretty sure a laser wouldn’t actually beam from my boob.
But I’m starting to think about going back on the apps soon, where I plan instead to use it for good: as an idiot detector. Though I wish it wasn’t necessary, Superboob may be just the litmus test I need to finally find the right man.