Dating After Cancer

Julie Matthews

I recently joined an on-line dating service. I’m 32, I’m decent looking, I have a job I enjoy and family and friends I love. My motto is “go with the flow”…well, more specifically, my e-mail tagline is “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” (Yogi Berra). But I’m wavering a little bit at this fork. I ended up telling a guy over a text last night that I’m a two-time cancer survivor.

In my defense, he had asked me why I was still single if I’ve lived in this area my entire life. He asked this in a teasing way, but when I read it, my heart sank. I told him I used to be shier than I am now, that I haven’t ever worked in an environment conducive to meeting single men, and then I put it all out there, the single most pertinent reason for my absence from the dating scene: I’m a two-time cancer survivor. I felt as though I would be lying if I didn’t mention this to him, because, after all, I’ve been dealing with leukemia in some form or another for the past five years.

Whenever someone brought up the topic of dating after cancer in my young adult support group, I admit that I only half listened. “I don’t have to worry about that”, I thought. “I’m not shy about sharing my cancer experience.” Here I am now, older, wiser and a little bit lost. Since my group doesn’t meet for several more weeks, I delved into the world of on-line cancer support.

First I visited forums where cancer patients and their significant others discussed the challenges of dating after cancer. As it turns out, men and women both struggle with identifying the best time to tell a new love interest about their cancer history. Some align themselves with the thinking that the earlier you tell someone, the less it will hurt you if that person cannot picture themselves with a cancer survivor. Even those who follow this school of thought advise waiting several dates before exposing the less gleaming aspects of your dating resume. In fact, Kairol Rosenthal writes in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s that date number four is the rule, unless your cancer is visible or you have a “tell-all personality”: “Why reveal your cancer on the first or second date to someone you don’t know, don’t trust, and may not see again? By the fourth date you may know if you want to continue seeing the other person. If your cancer turns out to be a deal breaker, hopefully you have not gotten too attached to him or her.”

Still, I know from listening to others in my support group that some people wait much longer, sometimes months to bring up “the big C”, especially if a fair amount of time has passed since their treatment. I didn’t find anyone advocating this in my on-line research. I, for one, am fully aware that I fall under the category of a “tell-all personality”, and I choose to embrace the thinking that “there will always be a risk of rejection, just as in any relationship between two individuals. But if a new relationship is strong enough to overcome such a difficult emotional hurdle as cancer, think how strong it will be when faced with so many other life challenges that lie ahead. A few initial rejections may be a small price to pay for the perfect life partner” (Richard Zmuda, http://www.cancerpage.com/news/article.asp?id=1497).

I am hopeful I will find that person, but I also think it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of possible suitors. Once you have had cancer, it is difficult to disengage from its effects on your life, but try and pretend for a moment that you never had cancer. You are young, vivacious, and you are finally in the position to begin building a family. You meet someone who strikes your fancy, and you learn he/she had cancer. This person seems wonderful, but you don’t know each other that well, and you worry about the possibility of relapse. Do you want to fall for someone who may not grow old with you? What if his/her cancer is hereditary? Do you want to pursue a relationship with someone who might pass cancer on to your children? What if that person cannot even have children as a result of cancer treatment? Perhaps adoption is an option for them, but it is not a necessity for you. Just think about those questions for a moment. I absolutely do not blame anyone for not wanting to date a cancer survivor.

Now, do I think they are missing out? Most definitely. No one has the luxury (or the woe, depending on how you look at it) of knowing how long they will live. Cancer patients, however, know how it feels to face the possibility of death, and many patients emerge from treatment with a new outlook. This perspective often allows them to experience the life they reclaim as something shinier and more beautiful than it was before cancer. They can become tremendous teachers for friends and family, and their value for love and life in their basic forms is a positive attribute in any romantic relationship.

As Zmuda suggested, it is a matter of meeting the right person…cliché, I know. It is encouraging to read Rosenthal’s story about dating with cancer and to learn that she found hers, and when she did, he “released the pressure valve on four years of dating angst”…and this was only one and a half dates into their relationship! I love the image…I can practically hear the release as a poof of air shoots out.

Almost every article or book I read mentioned practicing your cancer disclosure with a friend. I already recruited my friend Lori, and although I’m pretty sure our practice session will end up in fits of laughter, because that seems to be how all our time is spent together, I know it will be helpful. I look forward to finding out what the world of dating has in store for me.

Resources:
Breastless in the City: A Young Woman’s Story of Love, Loss, and Breast Cancer (I have not yet read it, but I read about it while researching this post, and it should arrive in my mail any day now!)
Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s
I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation
• Planet Cancer
“Would You Date a Cancer Survivor?” (Curetoday.com) – this lists some on-line dating/friendship sites specifically for cancer patients (who knew that existed?!)
Young Survival Coalition – a wonderful organization specifically for young women with breast cancer…I posted a message on their forum requesting advice about when to tell my date about cancer, and their responses were thoughtful and detailed. I highly recommend the site to any young woman with breast cancer (and her friends and caregivers).

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