Erika and Michael have been selected as the recipients of The Wedding Pink 2014. Please take a moment and read their journey of finding love in the midst of battling breast cancer.
How has your life been impacted by breast cancer?
At age 30, I have just come out of over a year of intense treatment for an aggressive, non-genetic and more-than unexpected cancer.
Growing up, I was always told that I had fibrocystic breast syndrome or, as I called it, "lumpy boobs," and I had essentially decided that checking for breast lumps was futile. I was told by my gynecologist and others, they could not tell what was what, so how could I? When I found a lump in my right armpit around Thanksgiving 2011, I reluctantly, at the advice of my physician, made an appointment with a radiologist. After being in their office for four hours, I was suddenly spurned out into the churning, frenetic nature of Manhattan with beguiling news. I had cancer. And pretty bad, too.
I fought Stage III "B-cancer" (as I like to call it) through 6 rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, 25 rounds of radiation, continued Herceptin treatments for a year and a reconstructive breast surgery.
Since then, I have become a writer, speaker and advocate for young adults fighting cancer. I publish on the Huffington Post and have done many radio shows to raise awareness about young adult cancer, but also to simply let others that are dealing with cancer know that they are not alone.
Breast cancer was my worst nightmare, but I try to make the experience something that I can learn and move forward from in a positive way.
How did you meet?
I was single when I got sick. Most people would ask what would possibly compel someone to even want to date (especially online) or have the energy to do so in the middle of cancer treatments. That is the question I have been trying to sort out myself ever since I did (but: spoiler alert! super glad I did).
I was in the middle of chemotherapy, which I had been doing for almost four months. It was spring in New York and I was getting bored and restless with the monotony of a cycle of going to work, then the hospital, then my couch. I was spending a lot of time with friends and family during treatments and then, in between, most of my time alone feeling fine. Everyone around me knew that I had cancer and it became all-consuming. When you get cancer, it is like literally all you talk about for a good number of months, and that can get pretty stale after a while.
A couple of things, therefore, were appealing about online dating. One was the idea of The Stranger -- someone that could give me, if even only for a night, a break from cancer. Someone who would not know me at all and to whom I could present a varied number of carefully curated facts about myself. What I wanted to disclose was up to me. My intent was not to manipulate, but to simply enjoy myself. I was basically hijacked by my illness and I needed a break. I had never been on a blind date, let alone an online blind date, in my life, but I thought this was the best way.
For me, cancer felt like a strange mask. While mostly an unwelcome one, it was a mask that at times made me feel empowered: under cancer’s guise, there was nothing left to lose. Cancer could be the excuse if the date didn't work out. If I acted awkwardly, I could blame the cancer. If he didn't like me, it could be cancer's fault. It may sound weird, but it made me feel less scared of the dating world.
Creating an online dating profile is awkward. Creating one when you have cancer? That is just another level of strange. How does one answer the loads of questions about future, love, kids and the like? (I sort of skirted them.) Do I put pictures of myself in my wig only -- current photos -- or ones from Erika before cancer? (I did both!)
What about stuff like, "What does a normal day consist of for you?" Do I answer "Heading over to the cancer center, hooking up to some IVs and muchin' some toast," or do I represent the person that is deep down in there, with interests beyond cancer and medicalia? (I did the latter.) When I came to questions like, "Regardless of future plans, what's more interesting to you right now? Sex or True Love" I laughed. Regardless of future plans? My whole world revolves around that idea right now!
I started cruising the site. I had been texting with a doctor (irony!) and some French guy and then one Sunday I favorited a cute guy named Mike_Kiwi (or something) and he quickly responded. "It seems we have more in common than just our good looks," he said, referring to the fact that I study food at NYU and he is a chef. He wanted to go out that night for a drink. I decided to say yes -- to just dive in. He lived two blocks from me, so we agreed to meet at a bar on the block that was between our addresses.
I almost did not go at the last second, when my nerves, and probably my grasp on reality, took hold of me. What was I doing? I had cancer! I was being deceptive and misleading. I called a friend and he told me to go -- "Just go! Go for 30 minutes. Have a drink! Just go!" So I did.
Mike, from New Zealand, was standing outside the bar waiting for me when I arrived. "Are you Mike?" I said and took a deep breath. He was handsome with the kindest eyes I had ever seen. I almost immediately felt bad, but then we sat down and started talking. And kept talking. And kept drinking and talking and then he invited me out for a super late dinner to his favorite restaurant. It was amazing! Like I was a regular person again! Having a great time! On a date!
At the end of the night, he walked me back to my door and kissed me on the cheek. The entire night, I had not disclosed my illness, though I saw him eyeing up my Livestrong bracelet once or twice.
I knew he was a bit taken with me when I got a text five minutes after I got in my apartment. And then more the next day and even more the following. We hung out one more time and then I told him I could not see him for a week because my mom was coming to town. Truthfully, she was, but she was coming to take care of me during my next round of chemo, which always left me completely couch-ridden and sick for days on end.
He was texting me a lot, all the while I was going through chemo and illness. "What are you and your mom doing today? There's a great exhibit at MoMA you guys should check out," he would write. I would write back, "Err yeah that sounds great, thanks." This went on for a couple days when finally, I was feeling so physically ill and terribly guilty that I wrote back to him the truth:
"Hi, this is probably the worst text you'll ever receive in your life, but I feel like I need to tell you, because I think you might actually like me. I have cancer and the real reason I can't see you this week is because I am doing chemotherapy. My mom is here, but not to have fun. She's taking care of me. I'm so sorry. Please don't feel obligated to even respond!"
He responded swiftly and strongly. It did not matter to him, he wrote, and he was so sorry for what I was going through. He wanted to know how he could help and if he could see me sooner than a week.
To say that I was shocked is an incredible understatement.
An hour later a knock came on my door. I was too weak to get up, so my mom answered and she brought back flowers to me in the living room. They were stunning, from a small artisanal flower shop in our neighborhood. I opened the card: "Doesn't change a thing. XOXO, Mike."
The next week I was in his arms, without my mask, without any secrets. He still loved me. He still loves me. When you start off like that, it leaves a crazy tight bond, a weird connection and a hell of a lot to look forward to. Now we are engaged and looking forward to all the great things to come in our future together.