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Lance Wagner Photography  /  for msnbc.com
After surgery and during chemo, Diane Mapes puts on her "date face" — a wig made of her own hair, penciled-in eyebrows and prosthetics.
By Health writer
updated 10/21/2011 8:09:38 AM ET 2011-10-21T12:09:38

Call me crazy, but I went on a date two weeks after my double mastectomy.

It was also my first social outing since the surgery, not counting the shambling walks around my neighborhood or the sobering follow-ups with my doc who told me I needed both chemo and radiation since my cancer had been upgraded from Stage 1 to what I called Stage WTF.

The date — a double date, to be specific — was with some married friends and a buddy of theirs. It was very casual, which was good since I was still wearing my surgical drains (stuffed down the front of my pants at this point) and was about as prepared to hold a conversation with an eligible man as I was to walk on the moon.

Thanks to the painkillers, half the time I thought I was on the moon.

Getting back out there
But I did it. Not so much because I was desperate to date but because I needed to get used to life without breasts at some point and figured I might as well get cracking.

I also was completely cancered out. I wanted to have fun, to feel like a normal person again, to have a conversation about something other than lymph nodes or chemo side effects or when, exactly, I'd be getting my new girls (despite my assumptions, chemo — and particularly radiation — meant reconstruction was at least a year away).

"Don't worry, he knows what's going on," my girlfriend told me as we headed out that night, which was great because I certainly didn't.

Overnight, my body had gone from an hourglass to a pyramid. My "killer" breasts now looked like they'd been run over by a Mack truck — or ironed. I still had my skin and nipples thanks to my superstar surgeon, but there were bruises, there were bandages, there were weird tubes under my skin and plastic grenades full of fluid hanging off my sides.

I felt like the breast cancer version of Spider Man's old nemesis, Doc Ock.

I also felt about as ugly as a woman can feel. But I was alive and would stay that way, thanks to the surgery and the forthcoming treatment.

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Getting to know me
After a few weeks, though, the bruises, bandages and drains went away and I actually began to look at myself more in the mirror, trying to figure out who — or what — I'd become.

"I look like a 10-year-old boy who's been in a bad fight," I'd tell my friends, trying to power through the pain with bravado and bad jokes. Inside, I told myself other things, praying they were true.

I'm the exact same person, my boobs are just a little different, I'd whisper as I ran through the streets of Seattle. I'm still pretty; it's just a different kind of pretty.

Once chemo started and I lost my hair, this last line became more difficult to swallow. Granted, I had a beautiful wig — made out of my own hair by a father and son team who specialize in chemo wigs — but once that and my fake boobs came off, I felt disconnected, scattered, like the Scarecrow after the flying monkeys got through with him.

Video: A different kind of pretty (on this page)

Part of me was here; another part there. And what was left looked a bit like a space alien.

Not a real boon when it comes to dating. Although as one friend pointed out, I could always post my picture on a fetish site where I'd probably "find some dude who's into that sort of thing."

Breast cancer dating etiquette
Instead, I tried to "pass," to pretend cancer and I had never met.

Whenever I'd stumble upon some potential date — either through an online site or just out and about — I'd pretend I didn't have a care in the world, even though the previous week, chemo and its accompanying bone pain, nausea and fatigue had wrung me out like an old dishrag.

This worked great with one guy, until he put his hand on the back of my neck at the end of our date and I jumped three feet, positive he could feel my wig.

Trying a new tack, I told the next guy all about the breast cancer only to be bombarded with a series of questions like "Sooooo, what are your odds?'" over cocktails.

Better than yours right now, I told him dismissively. Four hours later. In my head.

Was I supposed to tell them? Not tell them? Just bite the bullet and post an online ad that said it all: "Angry, bald, boobless woman seeks smart, patient man willing to endure endless conversations about breast cancer, chemotherapy, nausea, Neulasta, bone pain, prostheses, and how pretty my hair used to be. Interests include short walks, Netflix, and napping."

"Don’t put it on your profile," Gina Maisano, author of "Intimacy After Breast Cancer" and founder of the No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation advised me via phone. "You don’t want to be defined by your breast cancer. And don't talk about all the gruesome surgeries and side effects."

Maisano, a two-time breast cancer survivor, said I also shouldn't fret so much about my wig.

"Nobody notices," she said. "You can even wear it in bed. He just can't be pulling your hair when you're having sex."

Dating too soon?
Listening to her talk about sex made me wonder if I was even ready to date. Perhaps I'd jumped the gun by getting out there too soon. Perhaps I wasn't dating so much as trying to convince myself — through men — that I wasn't some weak, washed-up breast cancer victim. That I was still attractive. That I was still, well, human.

"If you can get out of the house and not be in Cancerland for a couple of hours, I think dating is a healthy thing to do," Maisano advised. "But there's nothing wrong with not being up to it. Just go with how you feel."

As chemo's side effects escalated and I had to give up the things that truly mattered to me — running, swing dancing, walking up four flights of stairs without resting — I realized I wasn't up to it.

So I changed tacks again.

These days, I'm hanging out with a new guy, a neighbor who lives up the street. He's smart, funny, cusses nearly as much as I do and is a cancer survivor himself. He's also 76 and doesn't mind when I ask if we can stop and rest during our morning constitutions.

It's not what you'd call a love connection. But it's a connection. We're comfortable with each other. We click.

I look forward to feeling the same way about my new body one of these days.

Diane Mapes is a frequent contributor at msnbc.com and TODAY.com. She's also the author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." Her website is dianemapes.net.

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Video: A different kind of pretty


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