Dating – that process of sifting through the “maybes” and “not quite rights” until you find the one who really “gets you” – isn't easy. Along with candlelit dinners, there can be disappointment, anxiety, and even rejection.
Having cancer or a history of cancer can make dating seem even more daunting. You may wonder if you're ready to put yourself out there again, when is the right time to reveal the disease, and how your romantic interest will respond.
“Dating is hard and scary even before you had cancer, and all of those fears are probably still there after the cancer,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering clinical social worker Barbara Golby. “Only now you're dealing with the fears and insecurities that come up as a result of cancer.” Those worries can involve fear of being rejected because of the disease, body image issues, and a more general struggle to regain your equilibrium after a frightening, draining experience.
As with choosing a partner, there's no one path that's right for everyone. A younger person whose goal is marriage and children, or whose potential mates may have had little experience with serious illness, may have different dating concerns than an older person, whose potential partner might very well be dealing with his or her own health issues. Each person also has a different comfort level when discussing the disease – some may find it important to share their experience; others would just as soon never bring up cancer again.
To help cancer survivors answer some of the questions they may have about re-entering the dating world, Golby offers the following advice.
Decide if you're ready.
A cancer diagnosis can shake people's self-confidence, making them feel their body has betrayed them or that they don't have as much control over their future as they once did, Golby says. The loss of confidence can make it harder to pursue a relationship.
Start to rebuild your confidence by reminding yourself what you have to offer a potential partner, and the traits you value most about yourself. If possible, returning to activities you enjoyed before cancer – or trying new ones – can help you feel like yourself again.
Consider what you want in a partner.
In dating, it's normal to fret about whether another person is going to be interested in you. But it's also important to think about the personality traits you value in a partner. You may want exactly what you wanted before cancer, or your priorities may have shifted.
“Dating is not about finding someone who is willing to date you despite your cancer,” Golby says. “It’s about connecting with someone whose company you enjoy and who offers the things you’re looking for in a mate.”
Dip a toe in.
There might not be a magic moment when you suddenly feel the time is right to join an online dating site or accept an invitation to a party where there will be other singles. Remember, going to a social event can be just that – a chance to get out and enjoy yourself, nothing more.
Address body-image issues.
Cancer treatment can leave scars, impact mood, decrease desire, and alter sexual function, leaving you feeling insecure and uncomfortable with your body. If you're struggling, Memorial Sloan Kettering offers sexual health programs with social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, urologists, and gynecologists who can help men and women deal with such challenges.
Plan how and when you want to have “the talk.”
The decision to disclose your disease is highly individual. Some people want to discuss their cancer right away because they feel it's an important factor shaping who they are. Others tend to bring it up almost as a defense mechanism – a test to make sure the other person can “handle it” so they can avoid being hurt later on, Golby says.
But for most people, the first date or two is too early to have “the talk.” Just like you wouldn't talk about an ingrown toenail the moment you meet someone new, waiting to discuss cancer can give the other person a chance to see all of your qualities, not just your medical history.
“For some people, the right moment is after two or three dates, for others, it's two or three months,” Golby says. “People can struggle to find that balance. They don't want to feel they're hiding the cancer, but they don't want cancer to be the first thing someone knows about them.”
Practice what you'll say.
Before the big reveal, do a trial run with a close friend to practice what you're going to say. There are no guarantees the conversation will go well when you have it with the person you're dating. But there are plenty of people who have battled cancer and gone on to find romance and love.
“Remember that dating is about finding common interests and values, and enjoying one another’s company,” Golby says. “This has not changed just because you had cancer.”
Join other survivors at Memorial Sloan Kettering's next dating and disclosure support meeting on May 1, from 5:30 to 7:00 pm. To register, call 646-888-4740 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also schedule an appointment with our Female Sexual Medicine and Women's Health Program by calling 646-888-5067, or with our Male Sexual and Reproductive Medicine Program at 646-422-4359.