Searching for love, in sickness and in health

03/12/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

Trueheart4me was 5-foot-9, spiritual but not religious, and a social drinker, her Match.com profile read. She loved the water, traveling and a good belly laugh.

There was one more thing she labeled “full disclosure.” She had cancer. “I was very lucky in that it was caught early and underwent surgery in early November that was a complete success,” the profile read. “The cancer is now gone, however, I’ll be in treatment for the next several months. I expect to be finished up in early May, at which time I am also hoping my hair grows back!”

Patti Tolley had an aggressive breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, which had spread to her lymph nodes. She’d recently had a large tumor removed, along with her right breast and the nodes, and endured three of about 16 chemotherapy sessions.

Bored one night, the executive assistant at the technology company Ciena bought a one-month subscription to the online dating site. She typed out the profile, posted pre-diagnosis pictures of herself and hit enter.

Her friends joked about who might be attracted to a woman who was “bald as a cue ball” and missing a breast. But Tolley felt she was more than the sum of her missing parts and she might get a chuckle from some of the men’s responses.

Several men responded as well as one woman, Jodi Kinney, who had uploaded a profile for a friend, a nice man without a computer or interest in Internet dating.

Kinney printed out several profiles of brunettes, which she knew her friend liked, and Tolley. Tolley was a blonde when she had a full mane, but Kinney just knew she was “the one” for David Parrish.

Parrish, who worked for Kinney at the Department of Defense, agreed to e-mail, via Kinney, but Tolley initially put him off. She had some other dates lined up. But those didn’t work out, and the two began e-mailing each other.

The first time they talked on the phone, he told her he had his own “full disclosure.”

She never imagined he would say that he had had a double mastectomy five years before to treat his breast cancer. Only 1 percent of cases diagnosed are in men, though it is the most common kind of cancer diagnosed in women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I told her I was fine and she’d be fine, too,” Parrish said.

Their first date was a comfortable dinner and the Diane Keaton movie “Because I Said So.” “It was like we’d known each other for 30 years,” Tolley said.

Tolley was soon sick and tired from chemotherapy, and dates consisted of Parrish bringing chicken noodle soup to Tolley’s Dundalk, Md., home.

When they did leave the house together, it often was Parrish escorting her to appointments, procedures and surgeries – including some that had nothing to do with cancer. He once got “a little loud” with a nurse he didn’t feel was attentive enough when Tolley was nauseated. And any time she had stitches, he’d make her ride home in the back seat, believing she was safer if they were in an accident.

“When he’s got your back, you know you are covered and in good hands,” she said. “Bless his heart.”

One night during her treatments, she fell asleep on the sofa and her wig slid to the side, revealing to Parrish for the first time her hairless head. He said he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

Tolley’s surgeon, Kristen Fernandez, director of the Breast Center at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, said she shares Tolley’s story often with other patients who tell her they are frightened of facing cancer alone.

Fernandez doesn’t necessarily recommend signing up on a dating site, but she said patients should talk to someone. She points them to a hospital program that matches breast cancer survivors with the newly diagnosed, created with the help of a survivor and the Maryland affiliate of the Susan G. Komen foundation.

“They don’t provide medical advice, but they provide support,” Fernandez said. “There are questions as a surgeon I can’t answer, like what it feels like when your hair falls out. We’d be foolish if we thought we could cut the cancer out and that’s it.”

Tolley and others say that support is essential, no matter where it comes from or how grand the gestures.

“Research shows that social support can help reduce stress and anxiety during treatment and that survivors with social connections – for example, through marriage, close friendships or membership in a religious organization – may have fewer physical limitations and less (of ) a decline in their ability to perform daily activities,” said Kelly Kesler, Komen Maryland’s community health director.

“Sometimes the simplest gestures, taking someone soup, just being there, may be what matters most to your friend or loved one,” she said.

Tolley said support came from all corners of her life, from friends, family, bosses and doctors.

Cancer now plays a big part in Tolley’s life. She continues to take medications and gets annual checkups. She also spends time talking to others scared by their diagnosis, mostly referrals from friends and family. And Parrish remains in a leading role. Seven months after they met, she moved into his Severn, Md., home. Eight months later, he proposed with a diamond ring that his mother had won in a bingo game and had him stash away when he was a teen. And on Sept. 9, 2009, she became Patti Tolley Parrish.

This month, seven years after their first date, Tolley, 56, and Parrish, 55, live happily with two yellow Labs, Babe and Mojo.

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