Dating and Cancer: Deciding When to Get Back Out There and How to Have “the Cancer Talk”

By Jenifer Goodwin and Meredith Begley

on Thursday, February 11, 2016

Couple at dinner Rebuilding confidence is key for cancer patients and survivors who plan to jump back into the dating scene.

Having cancer or a history of the disease can make the search for a relationship seem intimidating. Social worker Barbara Golby gives advice for restoring confidence, setting expectations, disclosing disease history, and resources to cancer patients and survivors looking to jump into the dating scene.

  • Rebuild confidence by remembering what you have to offer potential partners.
  • Sexual health programs can help deal with body insecurities as a result of the lasting effects of treatment.
  • Practice when and how to reveal your cancer history.

Dating is exciting — but having cancer or a history of the disease can make the search for a relationship seem daunting. You may wonder: Am I ready to put myself out there again? When should I talk about my condition? How will my date respond?

“Dating was hard and scary even before you had cancer, and all of those fears are probably still there after the cancer,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center 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 may look like a fear of rejection because of your history with the disease, body image hang-ups, and a more general struggle to regain your equilibrium after a frightening and draining experience.

Though many cancer patients have the same questions and concerns, no two relationships are the same. A younger person with goals of marriage and children — and potential mates who may have had little experience with serious illness — probably has different dating concerns than an older person, whose potential partners might very well be dealing with their own health issues. Each person also has their own individual 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.

Golby offers the following advice to help cancer patients and survivors answer some of the questions they may have about dating.  

Love Yourself First

A cancer diagnosis can shake a person’s self-confidence, making them feel betrayed by their body or as if they don’t have as much control over their future as they once did, Golby says. This 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. Returning to activities you enjoyed before cancer — or trying new ones — can help you feel like yourself again.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Plan 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 explains.

“For some people, the right moment is after two or three dates. For others, it’s after 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.”

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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. While you can’t control the other person’s reaction, you can control how you deliver the message. There are plenty of people who battle cancer and go 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.”

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Though happily married for 35 years, battling cancers these past five years makes one reflect on the toll it takes on the spouse. Becoming more vain, more spontaneous at times, and more self-absorbed are all manifestations of anxieties that must be addresed in a two-way conversation. Though your piece is not directly tied to my situation, I gladly keep "courting" my wife and look forward to as many dates as we can handle in the future

To Jenifer, the author of this post. How frustrating and disappointing that this article repeatedly uses the phrase "had cancer" and "after the cancer." What about those of us who are living with cancer, in remission or otherwise, because there is no cure. Ever heard of Stage 4 breast cancer, for example? You are a social worker -- you should know better!! Some of us have to adjust to living the rest of our lives "with cancer" and "in spite of cancer" and as a mental health professional who is supposedly helping people with emotional issues, I expect more. And at MSKCC I would expect a LOT more compassion and common sense!

We sincerely apologize that your experience was not well represented in this blog post. We are working with the social workers from our advanced cancer program to provide additional information that is relevant to those who are living with the disease. Please do stay tuned.

Thanks for the reply. It's not just about me and my experience. It's the overall idea that there is a "before" and "after" cancer, when in reality, for so many people this is simply not reality. I am a young, single person who was diagnosed early stage and then after aggressive treatment, I metastasized. No one was more shocked by this than me. I am not alone. It is so frustrating to read things that are designed to help, but then they include language like "after cancer." This is so totally invalidating and exclusive. The social workers need to understand that many, many, many, many cancer patients will be dealing with cancer on an ongoing basis in one way or another and that they too are looking for life skills and just some basic understanding. Some simple language adjustments could go a long way. I can't believe in 2014 there isn't more understanding of this at MSKCC. And yes I have advanced stage cancer, but I am in remission and healthy, too. But my life is not "after cancer" and never will be. I don't need my own newsletter but I shouldn't have to school a social worker either! Maybe I have learned too much way too soon, but I am fighting the good fight for those not as healthy as me. Arghh....

Thank you again for your insight. We take the suggestions and needs of all of our patients very seriously, and we're planning to explore a separate post on dating for people with advanced disease, as well as other topics that might be of particular interest. If you have any suggestions, we'd love to hear from you.

In the meantime, readers who would like to know more about existing resources for individuals with advanced, chronic, or metastatic cancer should be aware of the Advanced Cancer Initiative in the Department of Social Work, which runs educational programs such as "Living with Advanced Cancer,” a panel discussion offered this past December. There are also groups that address the impact of living with advanced cancer. Two of these groups are the Metastatic Breast Cancer Group (please call 646-888-5271 or 646-888-5203 for more information) and Making Today Count, an online support group:….

Finally, a recent issue of the Journal of Social Work in Health Care, much of which was authored by our social work faculty, focuses on the needs of individuals with chronic and advanced cancer

I have had stage 2 breast cancer, double mastectomy and radiation. I have been single for 7 years, with my diagnosis occurring in June 2012. I think this is an important issue and would be interested in hearing others experiences and how they dealt with it. As I returned to dating post treatment, I thought that revealing my health history would be a significant turning point - a make it or break point in a new relationship, and certainly anxiety provoking. I tended to reveal my medical history early, as that was what felt right for me. To their credit, what I found was that the men I dated were more interested in me as a person rather than the diagnosis. My journey still continues, but I am comforted in knowing that there are people out there who can see beyond the scars (both mental and physical) that we live with on a day to day basis.

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