How one woman battled breast cancer—and the L.A. dating scene—and came out on top.
I'm not a superficial person. But I live in Los Angeles, and I do like to look my best. Especially when I go to therapy or to my gynecologist. So it should come as no surprise that the day before my double mastectomy, I went to get my hair done. I thought it was important to have nice shiny hair while getting my breasts removed. I also had my hair done six months earlier, the day I kicked my husband out of the house. My daughter was two at the time, and I had just found out he was living a dark double life. Clearly, I had a bad year. But this story isn't about him. It's about me: a single mom back in the dating pool who was facing a total breast reconstruction, but with a head of hair that really had its shit together.
After leaving my ex husband, my friends promised me that things could only get better. And just as I started to pick up the pieces, POW! I’m hit again—this time, with cancer. On the bright side, as the doctor put it, I had the best kind of cancer, Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), caught at the earliest stage. He recommended that I get a single mastectomy, since it was in three different quadrants of my left breast. Even though my right breast was pristine, I opted for the double. I felt like my ex husband was my cancer and I wanted to cut him all out. Honestly, you know you’ve hit rock bottom when cancer is just the icing on the cake.
The doctor referred me to a wonderful plastic surgeon who showed me pictures of breasts he had done, without revealing their faces of course. I started crying. “I’m a single mom and I just started dating again! I didn’t know there would be these scars going across my breasts! I thought I’d be coming out with a boob job!”
He informed me that on the day of my double, he would just be starting the reconstruction. The whole process would take at least six months, culminating with my cherries on top.
Going Under the Knife
The night before my surgery, I took off my bra, put on my bunny ears and tried my best to squeeze out a smile, as I posed on my bed. I asked my friend to take pictures of me, so I could remember what my real breasts looked like. I always enjoyed my perky B minus cups (as I sometimes fondly called them) and never had the desire to upgrade. My nipples were always a huge erogenous zone for me that I knew I would sadly have to say goodbye to.
The next morning I woke up and watched my beautiful baby girl sleeping. It was so hard knowing that I wasn’t going to see her for a week and that when I got out of the hospital, I wouldn’t be able to lift her. But I couldn’t allow myself to feel the magnitude of this. I just needed to take care of business.
When I arrived at the hospital, I went into pre-op. First my breast surgeon came in to see me, then my plastic surgeon. He told me he liked my blue nail polish. I thanked him and asked if I was going to die. He took my hand and promised me that I would be okay.
The anesthesiologist came in, hooked me up to the IV and told me to count to ten. I closed my eyes, thought of my baby girl, and I was out.
My first few days in the hospital were a beautiful morphine-colored blur. By day four, I was a little more lucid. A good friend came to visit me, just as my doctor came to check out my breasts. She noticed that when he unbuttoned my gown, I turned my head away. I was terrified to see what would be present where my breasts once were. They both saw what I did and encouraged me to look. There were these two little baby anthills. In the middle of my ant hills, there were lines going across, not as bad as I had imagined them to look. I was mildly fascinated, like these new bumps on my chest were some science experiment. Like these scars were my war wounds.
Getting Back in the Game
I couldn’t let little things like starting reconstructive breast surgery, not having nipples, and having scars, get in the way of my dating life. I needed to date. It truly had become my lifeline in the midst of all the high-stakes drama that was my new reality.
But I also knew I would probably have to give a disclosure before I took off my top. So I made the decision that I would tell everyone on the first date: I’m a single mom, and I just had my breasts removed so I’m under reconstruction. My aunt thought I was crazy to disclose so much right away. I just figured, what have I got to lose? There’s a certain kind of freedom that comes from having your world turned upside down.
A week after I left the hospital, I wasn’t able to pull a shirt over my head, but I felt ready to have my first date in my new state. Yes, I was still on vicodin, but that made the date even more pleasant. He was an entrepreneur who owned a hanger company that sold hangers to the stars. After an hour, I realized that even on vicodin, talking about hangers is just as boring as I always imagined it would be. I never need to have a conversation about hangers again, so this was the perfect first person to try my disclosure on. So I just threw it out there.
“I’m a single mom, my ex husband is a sociopath, and I just had a double mastectomy. I got out of the hospital a week ago, and you’re my first date since my surgery!”
Hanger guy looked a bit stunned. I guess this isn’t normal first date banter, even for someone as odd as hanger guy. He said he was sorry I had to go through all this and then asked what I liked to do for fun. I told him I really liked board games.
Then with all the charm of an A-list hanger salesman, he asked me if I ever played naked oil Twister. He said it was a great way to learn about every nook and cranny of a person’s body. I told him that most people’s nooks and crannies I didn’t care to know about. He just laughed and asked if I would join him for a naked pool party.
This was not where I expected the conversation to go. Was I just a nipple-less novelty he wanted to check out, or did it not even phase him? In any case, it didn’t matter. It was such a relief to get everything out in the open. It actually made me feel giddy. So I decided to view my disclosure as an interesting dating experiment.
The first guy I slept with in my reconstructive state was just three days after my implant surgery. When I told him about my situation, he asked me if I had any nipples yet, to which I replied, “No, I'm just like Barbie.”
I showed him my breasts, we had great sex, and were involved for four months. He said to me, “You know what’s so sexy about you? It’s how comfortable you are in your body.” He was right. I felt sexier and more comfortable in my body than I’d ever been!
Look, I don’t have nipples, you think a little cellulite is gonna bring me down? I used to beat myself up and try to hide every imperfection about my body. But the fact that I have scars and no nipples is impossible to hide. There is something so liberating about everything being out in the open. It’s like any ideal of perfection I could have ever hoped for went out the window with my breasts. Everybody has scars, mine are just more visible.
And that's how, in the span of two years, I went on over 70 first dates. I became a player in one of the most superficial cities in the world. Sometimes people ask why it was important for me to date so habitually (sometimes even manically) after my cancer. I think there was a part of me that felt like if I was good enough to put on a little make-up and go out on a date, I wasn’t broken.
It also made me realize how deeply we as women can be so cruel to ourselves and our bodies. Living in L.A. and being an actress, I’ve always struggled with body image. I was bulimic from the time I was in 6th grade until I graduated college, always focusing on every little thing that was wrong with my body, instead of what was right. After getting my double mastectomy, I found new respect for myself and my body. Through this dating experiment, I learned even more about myself than the men I dated. In fact, I feel stronger and more connected to my life than I've ever been.
Reassessing the Damage
I've officially been cancer-free for four years now. My beauftiful daughter is six years old, and I’ve been in a relationship with my awesome boyfriend (who I met on my dating spree) for two years.
Over the years, I've spoken with so many women who were very nervous about dating again after a double mastectomy. I realize now that my unique experience left me with a surprisingly wonderful lesson: Once I accepted my scars and didn't approach them with shame, the men I was dating really didn't care. But I had to accept my body and my life first. That's not the only amazing thing to come out of this experience. I'll be premiering my new solo show, Dating in L.A. With No Nipples, this October for breast cancer awareness month.
Ironically enough, I think that being at such a low point when I was diagnosed allowed me to truly feel like I had nothing to lose. So I guess my advice to all women would be: Don't worry if you marry a sociopath. That way, if you get diagnosed with cancer, it'll pale in comparison.
Lisa Kate David is an actress, writer and voice-over artist hailed by The New York Times as “a major comedic force." For more information about Lisa, you can visit her website. Her new solo show, Dating in L.A. With No Nipples, premieres in Los Angeles this October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It truly is a story like no other. Tickets are available atbrownpapertickets.com (800-838-3006). For more information go towww.datinginlawithnonipples.com