I Thought All Love Was Off the Table — A Wildfire Story

May 15, 2023

When I graduated college, all of my closest friends were in serious relationships – some even married. I was always the odd single one, but I had chosen a different path. I was raised by first-generation Canadians, whose parents came to Montréal on a boat from Italy with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the dream of better opportunities. My parents had modest upbringings and often helped my grandparents at work when they weren’t in school. They instilled in me a sense of responsibility — to work, to save money, to make financial stability my top priority. There would be time for the frivolity of dating later. And so as I watched all my friends get married and start their new lives as part of a pair, I married my work. I was making six figures before age 25. At age 26 I was recognized as one of the best in my field. I was closing in on my goal of buying a home, with only my income, before the age of 30. I was living the life I thought I was supposed to live.

Then cancer happened. Like a mirror falling to the ground before my eyes, I watched all of my dreams shatter as my oncologist said the words, “It’s spread to your bones.” I wouldn’t survive the cancer, so why would I continue spending all my time trying to climb the corporate ladder? I wouldn’t survive the cancer, so why would I buy a home only to leave my family with the responsibility of a mortgage that would likely outlive me? But the shattered dream that saddened me the most was the dream I had of finding my person. I had spent my whole adult life working, just like my family had always told me was most important, but what was I left with? A healthy 401k I wouldn’t live long enough to use, a house fund that would likely be put towards medical bills or given to my brother when I’m gone, and a loneliness inside me that I was sure I would never be able to fill with a life partner. After all, what man looking for a serious relationship would sign up to be with a woman who would likely not live to age 40? What man would knowingly sign up to be a widower long before retirement age?

I tried dating apps, and even met a few men from the apps in person, but once they found out about my health, the conversations became less and less frequent until they exited my life altogether. I didn’t blame them; if the roles were reversed, I can’t say I would jump at the opportunity to be with a man whose years left on earth could be counted on two hands. And so I resigned myself to a life of singledom – my dog Scout as my only life partner. I watched my friends pass milestone after milestone and cheered them on while each one grew the ache in my chest that longed to live those milestones too.

And then I met David. We met at a mutual friend’s wedding and hit it off right away. We both love the outdoors, national parks, travel, and Taylor Swift car sing-a-longs, and our personalities couldn’t be more similar. I tried not to get too attached though, because there was no way he would be interested in a romantic connection with me given my incredibly short lifespan. When he asked me to spend a day together a few weeks after the wedding, I said yes thinking it would just be a friend thing. Our hang out was a few days before my birthday, and when he picked me up he brought me an incredibly thoughtful gift and gluten free brownies he had made for me from scratch. From that day forward, we spent at least one day every weekend together and against my better judgment, I started falling for him more and more. I thought I was destined for heartbreak, but the happiness he brought to my life felt worth a thousand heartbreaks, so I continued to spend time with him.

Then one night we were talking on the phone and ended up expressing that we had feelings for each other. I was shocked that he would feel the same way about me. Why would he want to be with a terminal person? Later that night, I expressed my fears about cancer, my prognosis, and how I feared that it would affect our relationship. I expected him to want to take a step back from us, to find someone with a longer life expectancy. Instead, he wrote words that I’ll never forget – words that brought me to tears: ”Just because you live long doesn’t mean you’re happy or your life is meaningful etc. This just means that unfortunately if we can’t cure you, you will leave us a little earlier than the rest of us, but I will be so happy to know we really had something real …”

Before he sent me this message, I don’t think I knew what it was like to be so loved for every part of me. Some of my exes loved me for what I looked like, or my body, or the promise of the life we could live together. David loves me for who I am, for every part of me, both good and bad. He makes me a better person and showed me a love I thought I’d never get to experience in this lifetime.

Our relationship isn’t without its struggles of course, and cancer is a big one for us. The first time we kissed I ended up with an infection that landed me in the emergency room with a neutropenic fever, and coming from a traditional Chinese family, telling his parents about my diagnosis has been a struggle for both of us. But whatever life throws at us, I know that we can conquer it together, because we are both so all in for every part of each other – both good and bad.

I don’t know what the future holds for us. Maybe (hopefully) I’ll get to live my dream of a wedding and we’ll sail off into the sunset, or maybe we won’t be each other’s forever. But whatever happens, I’m grateful for the most selfless man I’ve ever met showing me a love I could only dream of during a time when I thought all love was off the table for me. Like he said, we have something real, and I’m the luckiest girl in the world to get to experience it for however much time I have left.

Editor’s Note: A modified version of this essay was originally published in Today under the headline, “Dating While Dying.”

Marketing operations manager. Diagnosed at 27. IDC, Stage IV, ER+, PR+. Chiara was originally told that her breast lump was only a cyst and that she was too young for it to be breast cancer, only to be diagnosed with MBC with extensive bone metastasis a year later. This cancer diagnosis has taught Chiara what is most important to her: spending time with her loved ones and her dog, traveling and seeing more of this beautiful world, and spending as much time exercising and out in nature as possible. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, and spends her weekdays working at her tech marketing job during the day and exercising however her body allows in the evenings. Her weekends are spent hiking with friends and her dog, paddle boarding, taking short adventures to nearby towns, and she has recently taken up surfing. When she has time off, she works towards her goal of seeing all 63 US national parks. • @chiaravscancer

This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the “Love and Intimacy” issue, published originally April 15, 2023. More information available at  wildfirecommunity.org    

WILDFIRE Magazine is the only magazine for young women survivors and fighters of breast cancer under 45 years old. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, WILDFIRE is a beautiful, story-based bi-monthly magazine published on different themes relevant to young women survivors, from stage 0 to stage IV. Beautiful and ad-free! Visit  wildfirecommunity.org for more info.

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