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Dating After Cancer: The Disclosure Dilemma

by Marloe Esch RN, BSN, OCNSurvivorOctober 26, 2020View more posts from Marloe Esch RN, BSN, OCN

The idea of getting close to someone new after a cancer diagnosis can be nerve-wracking.  I mean, cancer has changed so many things already; what if it’s also changed what a romantic relationship could look like?  After all, cancer (and its aftermath) can feel like an uninvited tag-along that requires a reluctant introduction, or a decidedly squeaky companion that you worry will make a new date feel like the third wheel.  Perhaps it seems as though there is just no way that anyone could ever understand…

But then, you meet somebody.  They’re kinda cute.  They help you remember what it feels like to laugh.  And along with some butterflies, doubt starts to creep in.  Would they understand?

Bringing Up the “C” Word

One of the hardest things about getting back into the dating game after being diagnosed with cancer is figuring out how to explain to somebody what we’ve been through, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it exactly right.

We worry that sharing too much too soon will freak someone out, but that too little too late will get us found out.  We don’t want to ruin what feels like a good groove by bringing up a such a downer topic; who wants to talk about cancer? We are afraid of being pitied, or of being seen differently.  We might have ambivalence about commitment, because how do we know that the cancer isn’t going to come back?  Or maybe there’s just a tinge of urgency to get on the relationship-train, because, heck, who’s got time to wait around?!

Ultimately, underlying these concerns is a fear that cancer has somehow made us into an unlovable, undesirable pile of damaged goods.

But, who says?

No Apologies

First things first.  You gotta remember that you — the whole of who you are — is worthy of acceptance and love. Yes, cancer happened to you, and there’s no denying that your experience probably has altered some aspects of your life.  How could it not, quite frankly?  But cancer does not define your existence.  It doesn’t dictate your future.  And it certainly doesn’t require an apology.

The way I see it, being forced to look at life through the Cancer Lens has provided us with a unique perspective.  It’s a reality check that some of our peers may not get for a long time, if ever.  We survivors often no longer have the patience to wade through the day-to-day crap that typically crowds out what really matters.  We know that it means to pay attention to the good stuff, and the importance of putting our limited energy into something meaningful.  And we don’t feel obligated to explain ourselves to people who don’t get it.

In my opinion, it’s precisely this cancer-induced attitude adjustment (comes free with diagnosis, y’all!) that happens to be one of our greatest assets.  We are living life like it’s the only one we’ve got — no apologies — and anybody lucky enough to be invited along for the ride can take it or leave it!

Everybody’s Got Something

Also, everybody’s got something.

We all have parts of ourselves that feel a little scary to expose.  This is important to remember, because the person you are nervous to be real with may also have their own disclosures to make. When you are getting to know somebody, it’s natural to share more and deeper things as a way to create connection.  With the right person, the vulnerability that comes with this kind of sharing helps build trust and intimacy.  And, you guessed it, this is the stuff that all good relationships are made of.

No Risk, No Reward

Still, sometimes bringing up cancer feels too risky.  It’s kind of like offering someone a little piece of yourself that you hope they’ll handle with care, but there’s always a chance they’ll just drop it in the dirt and walk away.  And how many times can this little bit of yourself get trampled on before you decide that you shouldn’t even offer it up at all?

Here’s another question:  How do you feel about taking chances?  I ask because some of the greatest rewards come from going out on a limb.  And sure, this provides more room for disappointments, too.  But that’s not cancer-dependent, that’s just a part of life!

At first, it might feel better to seek refuge with fellow survivors – the people who just get it, without explanation.  But don’t automatically discount all the other fishes in the sea.  For most people (cancer or not), when they feel like they “click” with another person, a lot of other things really don’t matter as much.  If somebody makes you feel good when you’re with them, that’s worth exploring.

Dealing with Rejection

Rejection stings, especially if it occurs after you’ve mentioned the “C” word.  But it’s important not to feel discouraged when things don’t work out.  Keep in mind that relationships cease to exist (or never get started in the first place) for all kinds of reasons. Chalking it up to the most likely culprit – the simple fact of incompatibility – helps prevent it from feeling too personal.  I mean, we wouldn’t have expected every pre-cancer date to end in wedded bliss, right?  So why should we hold such unrealistic expectations for our post-cancer romantic pursuits?

Also, if someone reacts in a hurtful or rude way, this says so much more about them than it does about you.  In fact, it’s probably something to be grateful for, because they just demonstrated that they are either not mature enough to handle adversity, incapable of providing support, or just plain selfish.  So, whew!  You probably dodged a bullet.  I mean, say what you will about cancer, but it sure does have a way of weeding out the jerks.

Oh, and speaking of jerks…

A Word About Respect

You deserve it.  Period.

Let me explain.  Sometimes, after cancer, we might feel like we should just take what we can get.  We may rush to settle for a less-than-ideal person or a toxic relationship because, well, we’re afraid that no one else would want to take on our cancer baggage.  This is no bueno, my friends, and also, absolutely not true.  Having had cancer does not mean that you must accept hurtful, disrespectful, or abusive behaviors from a romantic partner (or any other kind of relationship, for that matter).  You deserve to feel safe and valued, no matter what.

Perhaps it seems easier to put up with these poor behaviors rather than face being alone.  However, being stuck in a damaging relationship can actually amplify feelings of isolation, whereas being single does not automatically equal being lonely.  Letting go of the negativity associated with a bad relationship frees up mental space and energy that can be used to focus on the people in your life who truly do care about you. Plus, when you’re no longer consumed with the impossible task of trying to make a poor relationship work, it’s more likely that you’ll take notice when somebody new comes along who may actually be worth your time! Who wants to miss that opportunity?!

The Bottom Line

Lookit.  You are who you are because of the things you have persevered through, including cancer.  Most people will value your openness and honesty, and someone who enjoys spending time with you and who cares about you will be able to appreciate the things you’ve been through, because that’s what has shaped you into the awesome human in front of them today.

Getting to know others, and inviting others to get to know you, are chances worth taking.  Finding the confidence and perseverance to do so requires understanding the value of what you have to offer someone – which is a lot!  You are a good catch.  So, what are you waiting for?

The Nuts-and-Bolts of Disclosure

I know, I know.  I can hear it now from up here on my soapbox; the collective sigh from all of you out there, thinking “Yes, yes, honesty is best.  But how!?”

Here’s the thing.  The good news (or maybe the bad news) is that there really isn’t one right way to bring this topic up.  That said, here are a few things to keep in mind that can help.

Timing.  If you are worried about sharing TMI, offering up info on a need-to-know basis is totally cool.  But at some point…they’ll probably need to know!   As a general rule, it’s a good idea to wait until you’ve hung out at least once or twice.  This gives you an opportunity to get a read on whether or not they’re even worthy of your time.  Until you’ve established that you can see yourself investing energy into a relationship with this person, it’s not necessarily worth the emotional vulnerability that often comes with disclosure.

However, once you’re like, “Hey, this person is rad!”, you should consider sharing the pertinent aspects of your cancer history. This after-building-some-trust-but-before-making-a-commitment window may look a little different for each individual or situation, and that’s ok.  The most important part is being as open and honest as you can, when your gut feeling tells you the time is right.

Put yourself in their shoes.  Accepting their reaction to your disclosure may be a little easier if you put yourself in their shoes.  For example, if they had something surprising or personal to share with you, how would you like them to bring it up?  Would you appreciate some time to think about what you’ve learned?  Ask questions?  Be alone for a little bit?  Everyone’s needs are a little different, but do your best to understand where they are coming from.

Convey confidence.  While you can’t predict how someone is going to take the news, people do tend to “read the room,” meaning that they often mirror the emotional cues and attitude of the person they are with.  If you are matter-of-fact, upbeat, and comfortable with the conversation, it’s more likely that they will be, too.

Keep it simple.  Choose a time and place where you will be able to answer questions or discuss details, if they ask.  Set the stage with a statement like “We’ve been having a lot of fun together, and I’m really enjoying getting to know you.  There’s something that I would really like to share with you.”

After that, start with the very basics.  Dr. Anne Katz3 recommends something as simple as “I have/had cancer ____ months/years ago.”  You could elaborate, too, with something like, “I am going through ____ treatment, and that just means ____.”  Or, “I went through ____ treatment ____ months/years ago, and today I am feeling _____.”

You can sum it up with something like, “I just wanted you to know.  Do you have any questions?”

Don’t push it.  Don’t worry if there is a bit of silence after you’ve shared what you wanted to.  If they are caught off guard, they may not know quite what to say and stumble over their words a little bit, or they may change the subject.  Initially, they may even express some upset. Acknowledge that you understand it may be surprising information, and that it’s ok to take a little time to think about it.  Let them know that you’re open to questions whenever they are ready.

But also, don’t ignore it. While it’s totally valid for someone to need a little time to digest the news, it’s also important that you feel heard, respected, and accepted.  If you dropped the topic earlier, pick it back up on a different day.  Ask them if they have thought any more about what you shared and if they have any questions.

If they continue to avoid the topic completely, or respond negatively to your attempts to discuss, they may not be in a place right now where they can support you in the ways that you deserve.  Better to know now than later!  Congratulate yourself for being honest and straightforward; you successfully identified that this person would not have been a reliable support in your life.

Make a game plan for what you might say in response to certain reactions.  Even if a question or comment from somebody feels insensitive, chances are that they’re not trying to be hurtful or mean.  Use their words as a starting point for engaging in a conversation and as an opportunity to clear up misconceptions.

For example, how might you respond constructively and honestly to the following?

o   “I’ve never met anyone with cancer before.”

o   “My [cousin/aunt/grandpa/friend] died of cancer.”

o   “Does this mean you can’t have kids?”

o   “Why did you tell me that?”

o   “Could the cancer come back?”

o   “Are you going to die?”

o   “I can’t date a sick person.”

o   “I’m so glad you told me that!”

·         Practice your responses in front of a mirror or with someone you trust, like a family member or friend.  The more you do, the more confident you will be that you can handle any situation!

Bibliography and References:

  1. American Cancer Society. (2020). Fertility and Sexual Side Effects in People with Cancer.
  2. Green, Laci. (2018). Sex Plus. HarperCollins Publishers.
  3. Katz, Anne. (2014). This Should Not Be Happening: Young Adults with Cancer. Hygeia Media.
  4. Macmillan Cancer Support. (2017). Sex and Relationships: Support for Young People Affected by Cancer.
  5. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2020, March 2). Sexual Health and Intimacy.
  6. National Cancer Institute. (2018). Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment.

This article was in our September 2020 Magazine – Click Here to view that issue!

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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