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

By Jenifer Goodwin

on Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Couple at dinner

Social worker Barbara Golby gives advice to cancer survivors who are entering or re-entering their search for that special person.

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.

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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 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.”

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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. 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.”

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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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