An IC grad struggles with Cupid during cancer
During his time at Ithaca College, Daniel Haack was the Big Gay on Campus. He flirted with everyone, went on dates every few weeks with the best-looking guys at the school, and used his naturally charming swagger to easily fill up his social calendar.
His confidence didn’t fail him when he graduated in 2010 and moved to New York City, where he continued dating, using the NYC night life as a backdrop for new romantic experiences. Meeting guys was never a problem for him, and his pick-up lines were never met with eye-rolls.
But a year later, when Daniel was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22, he started using a different line at bars: “Hey, my name’s Daniel, and I have cancer.”
“It was almost like a novelty,” Daniel said about the disease in his first few weeks after being diagnosed. “It was something that I embraced and treated lightly; I knew that it probably made a lot of people uncomfortable, so I wanted to make it seem like at least my approach was light-hearted.”
He would make jokes about it, explaining away his lack of hair or other physical signs of illness before anyone — new friends, potential romantic interests — could even be curious. “At the beginning, it was something that was more ‘interesting’ rather than something that affected me tremendously,” he explained.
Daniel’s initially light-hearted attitude functioned as a defense mechanism about his previous few months, where he endured needle biopsies, surgical biopsies and endless doctors’ visits trying to determine a diagnosis for the disease. The process began in October 2010, when Daniel noticed a painless, marble-sized lymph node above his collarbone. He ignored it for two months until January 2011, when he woke up in the middle of the night to find that the lymph node had expanded to the size of a baseball and became tender. After three more months of medical testing and worrying, Daniel finally received a positive diagnosis in April 2011: He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a relatively “curable” cancer that’s common in young men in their twenties and thirties.
“My original approach was very matter-of-fact,” Daniel said. “I said to myself, ‘I have this disease, I’m going to do the treatment for it, and let’s just go from here.’”
The treatment involved eight months of chemotherapy, which Daniel began almost immediately, going into the treatment facility every other Thursday. Over the weekend, he would recover from the chemo, dealing with his nausea and fatigue and resting up so that he could go back in to work on Monday.
He strove to maintain normalcy, refusing to take a leave of absence from his job and continuing to forge new romantic relationships with guys — including a boy named Jonathan, who Daniel had been casually dating since prior to receiving the diagnosis.
Daniel quickly found that it was hard to maintain a completely normal life while dealing with cancer, and he began to see that the disease was interfering with his romantic pursuits.
“When you’re undergoing chemo, dating — especially dating someone new — is very difficult,” Daniel said. “I had worries that he was only staying with me because he felt pressured by the fact that I was going through this. I mean, no one wants to be the one who dumps someone with cancer.”
Beyond that, the chemotherapy took a significant physical toll on Daniel’s body. The sickness and fatigue would start right after treatment and last for several days, plummeting his energy.
“They were putting poison into my body and basically breaking me down every two weeks,” he explained. “When I was sick after chemo, I just wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to be with anyone. I just wanted to be in bed and power through it by myself. I think the idea of someone being super close to me or sleeping in the same bed as me would have made me even more nauseous.”
Daniel and Jonathan eventually decided that the relationship wasn’t the right thing for either of them, and stopped seeing each other.
Daniel soon found that cancer didn’t just affect his relationship with Jonathan; it dramatically changed the way he viewed himself and made him second-guess his decisions regarding meeting new guys and dating around.
“I’ve always gravitated toward being a strong, dominant person in relationships,” Daniel said. “And all of a sudden, I was ill. I felt very weak — like I was the one who needed care and needed protecting. It made me feel like a victim.”
His self-confidence fell even more dramatically when the chemo started to affect his appearance, making him lose his hair, some muscle mass, his eyelashes, and his eyebrows.
“The eyebrows thing really affected me — I don’t know why it was just the eyebrows,” Daniel reflected. “I had always had dark, full, strong eyebrows. But when you look at pictures at some points, if the flash was bright enough, it looked like I didn’t even have eyebrows. That made me feel neutered in some ways. It took away what I had considered essential parts of me and essential parts of being a man.”
Daniel’s increasingly negative understanding of his body image discouraged him from pursuing guys as much as he used to.
“I didn’t feel ugly,” he said. “I just felt like I looked like I had cancer, and that really bothered me. I didn’t want to share my body with someone new when it was in that state — I felt like my body was betraying me.”
Daniel found himself feeling stuck in a confusing mindset, one that was making conflicting demands.
“There was a profound part of me that wanted a romantic partner, especially when I was going through something like this,” Daniel said. “But the idea of letting in someone new and expecting someone new to come in and embrace my situation was something I didn’t want to deal with. There were points where I really would have loved the companionship and the stability, but there were definitely times when it felt more appropriate to be doing this alone.”
Daniel found it challenging to negotiate the two desires. He had very quickly gone from being a strong, confident man to being someone who wasn’t even sure what he wanted.
Eventually, he gave up on trying to date, enduring the last few months of his treatment removed from the dating game that had formerly occupied a significant amount of his time.
“If I ran into someone cute who ordinarily I would have had an interest in, I didn’t feel like I was in the place to approach them or pursue them or anything,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel like a burden, and I made myself feel less strong than I actually was. I lost this sense of comfort and I was suddenly reevaluating my strengths.”
Instead, he turned to his friends and family, who helped him deal with his feelings and encouraged him to push through the discomfort of the eight-month chemo process.
Now, a year after receiving the official diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Daniel is in remission. He has to get PET and CT scans every six months for the next five years until he is officially declared to be cancer-free. “For a while,” he said, “I’m going to be living my life in six-month increments.”
In the meantime, he’s transitioning back to the normalcy of his pre-cancer life.
“In the first few months after finishing chemo, when I was starting to feel a lot better and my hair started coming back, I felt a sense of rebirth,” Daniel said. “I’m back to being the same guy as I was before being diagnosed, but with an extra drive. Getting through cancer has really empowered me to become the best man I can be.”
As for his love life, Daniel is playing coy.
“There are good things happening for me,” he promised with a smile. “I’m totally ready to get my life back to normal.”
Adam Polaski is a senior journalism major who found love in a hopeless place. Email him at apolask1[at]ithaca[dot]edu