The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Dating and Sex After Cancer

by Candice TomkinsSurvivor, Ovarian Cancer (Mucinous Carcinoma) May 16, 2024View more posts from Candice Tomkins

Dating and Sex After Cancer: When Things Go Right and Wrong

The First Relationship After Cancer Chapter

It was always going to be hard—deciding when to start dating after cancer. I waited until I had my NED (no evidence of disease) results and then made a conscious effort to start talking to people on Bumble, as if I was a “normal” 34-year-old in the dating pool. I’m sure I speak for an entire generation when I say I hate Bumble. And Tinder. And Hinge. The worst but seemingly only way to meet partners now. However, I did “find” someone who matched my vibe and was keen to meet. I cannot explain the courage it took me to go ahead with this. I knew I had to do it—the first date after cancer—but I had no idea how to navigate it. My plan was always to mention cancer on the first date; that probably sounds crazy to most people, but I like to get everything out in the open, otherwise, I feel like I’m being dishonest. Since it’s been the biggest part of my life to date, it felt wrong not to talk about it, but It didn’t happen like that. The conversation was flowing well, and it just didn’t feel necessary to bring it up. A whole four hours and four glasses of wine later…zero cancer chat. As a natural oversharer, I totally surprised myself with that one!

After the date, I was worried I hadn’t said anything about it, but a friend rightly said something that has stuck with me: “You are more than your cancer diagnosis. It’s just one part of you.”

That aside I was still really scared of getting anywhere, even a few dates down the line, with someone and then facing rejection because of it. I needed to protect myself. I had no idea what would happen, but I told myself that if there was going to be a second date then I needed to say something beforehand.

When he asked if I was up for a second date, instead of being excited I was nervous because I knew I needed to tell him about my situation before that was a certainty.

How the fuck do you navigate that conversation? I played the statements over and over in my head. I was just as worried about how it would make him feel as much as how he would respond. I didn’t want him to think I was assuming it would go any further or that I was expecting anything from him. I needed to find the right balance of honesty without being too overwhelming. But it’s cancer at 34—it’s pretty overwhelming. I tried to put myself in his shoes, but I couldn’t. There is no manual for this stuff. AYA cancer patients really do have the worst of it. You are thrown back into the world where everyone is in the prime of their life and you are just supposed to fit back in as if you didn’t just nearly die/lose all your organs/become infertile/suffer extreme mental stress and trauma.

I decided it would be more fair if I told him via text because I didn’t want to put him on the spot and/or do it after several glasses of wine. At least then he had time to react and respond.

The reeling thoughts went something like this…

“I had cancer. I’m better but I’m infertile. I’m not assuming anything but I have to tell you, I can’t have biological children. I did have three eggs frozen, but surrogacy is illegal in Portugal. I have a really big scar on my tummy, which you’re going to see if we decide to be intimate. I hope it doesn’t scare you. My body has changed and I am still getting to know it. I’m actually really scared to have sex. I’m not sure what it will feel like for me now. I take hormones because I’m in menopause and sometimes I can’t regulate my temperature. I have no evidence of disease but it’s not totally over. I still have to have scans, but it’s just to be extra cautious. I’m going to be ok…I think.”

I settled for…

“I need to share something with you. I had early-stage ovarian cancer last year. I had two big operations but now I’m cancer free. Unfortunately one of those operations was a hysterectomy which means I can’t have biological children. It seems crazy telling someone I’ve just met this, but It’s been a big part of my life so I don’t want to hide it. I’m not assuming anything, I just want to protect myself. If you change your mind after knowing this I would totally understand.”

Looking back I can see how big a step that was for me. It was the start of me being vulnerable, jumping into the unknown, and hoping for the best. I would say those two words sum up being a cancer survivor pretty well: jump and hope.

I think a lot of people will think that if someone doesn’t want to meet you after telling them your cancer history then they’re not a good person, but I totally disagree. It’s a big deal, especially if that person wants children in their future. There’s a lot to think about and if that piece of information made someone rethink a second date, then I would see it as for the best. However, I also knew that if I was rejected based on that the first time I shared my cancer history with someone, it would make subsequent dates way more difficult.

So I literally cried when I received his reply. Not only did he acknowledge I’d been through a shit time but he still wanted a second date.

That was the first big mountain for me. Knowing someone still wanted a second date after revealing my history was a huge relief. Maybe it’s not as big a deal as I thought it would be? Maybe this dating thing is going to be OK?


The Second Date and Beyond…

I thought I would want to talk about it more on the second date, but I didn’t feel like I needed to. I mentioned it but it was in no way the main topic of conversation. I don’t know why I was so surprised by this? I guess it was such a massive part of my life that I forgot there was more going on in the world than my cancer diagnosis.

Starting to date this person is what helped me realize I don’t need to think about cancer all the time. It helped me remember that good things exist. Life really does go on. The next few weeks and months dating him would turn out to be my journey back into the real world. I’m forever grateful for it.

Ask any cancer survivor what life is like after cancer and most will relate to this: low lows, high highs. The lows are exceptionally hard, but the highs, oh man, those highs are like hospital pain meds..fucking amazing.

As the dates started adding up, my sparkle started shining through again. Through intimacy, I experienced these extreme highs and it was those moments that reminded me that not everything has to be so heavy. I remembered I’m more than the shit I went through. Good things do still happen to people who have been through bad things.

I went through diagnosis and treatment mostly alone. It was only after NED I felt able to let people in again. This was the first time I had let myself get close to someone and it felt almost euphoric. I don’t want to rose-tint it too much though. Sometimes it takes good things to happen in your life to realize how bad it really was. I was trying to balance this newfound happiness with processing all that I had been through. With the huge highs came fragility. There was more than one occasion when I struggled to accept that something good was happening and to let myself go with the flow.

Overall I was in a really good place and feeling more positive about the future.

That was, until date number eight.

The whole reason I kept people at a distance while I was going through treatment was because I didn’t want to put any of my trauma on anyone else. I didn’t want to have to think about their emotions on top of my own. I deliberately didn’t go on any dates until after NED for this reason. I wanted to confidently say it’s my past, not my present, so you don’t have to be involved in it. It’s my locked box of trauma; I’ll tell you what’s inside, but you won’t ever have a key to it.

Date number eight. Valentine’s Day. Things were going great between us. I felt very comfortable and safe. We had a great energy together. I had just been cleared for sex (after having a polyp removed two weeks previously), so it was the perfect time to experience another “first after cancer.” I was definitely anxious about it because I didn’t know how I/it would feel after such a huge operation and change in my anatomy, but I also felt ready.

I need to protect at least some privacy here, so let’s skip to after the main event. I had pain almost immediately after. A gnawing feeling in my lower belly. It was my first time having sex in over a year (thanks cancer!), so I didn’t know if it was normal or not. I told him straight away. He suggested going to the hospital but I refused to believe that was the next step. I took a paracetamol and asked him to make me a hot water bottle, hoping that the pain would subside. But it didn’t. It got worse and worse. Eventually, I turned to him and said, “We need to go.” I’ve never seen someone move so fast. He ran out the door to his car ten minutes away and drove back to get me. I tried to get myself out of bed to get dressed but could only get my jeans on before having to curl up in a ball again. In the space of those ten minutes, I went downhill massively. I managed to pull a T-shirt on and slip my feet in my trainers, but when I tried to do up my laces I couldn’t do it. He tied them up for me, and it was at this point I think we both realized it was really serious. Nausea kicked in and the next thing I knew I was hugging the kitchen bin in his car. In the car I started feeling like I was going to pass out, but I didn’t. When we got to A&E (accident and emergency), my hospital instinct kicked in. I’ve been through those A&E doors more times than I care to remember, so I just powered on through. I sent him to get a ticket then shouted my healthcare number at the receptionist. They passed me to a nurse while he parked the car. I remember the nurse saying to walk slowly, and all I was thinking was, “I’m going to pass out if you don’t get me to triage right now.” I wanted to pass out, but I didn’t.

By the time I was in the waiting room, I was a real mess. This was when I started going into shock. Everything was spinning, I was in so much pain. When he got back to me they called me into triage. I remember looking at him and seeing bewilderment and then thinking, “Why, why did this have to happen? Why did I have to drag him into this?”

Again, I’ve been in triage too many times, so I knew the drill. I tried explaining my situation. They asked me if I was pregnant, and I screamed at them to read my notes (which are becoming increasingly long and complicated). “I had cancer, I had a hysterectomy, it’s impossible for me to be pregnant.” The room is spinning. I want to pass out, but I don’t. They took my BP. I glanced over, 90/40. Shit. I’ve glanced at that machine many, many times and it’s never looked like that. That was when I accepted I was not in a good way, and I got really scared. They accepted it too. I lost my ability to walk at this point. They slapped an orange band on me and loaded me into a wheelchair as I clutched my stomach.

I can confidently say that the next 10, 15, 20 (?) minutes I spent in the examination room was the most traumatic experience of my life. I was in so much pain at this point but the only way to find out what had happened was to use the speculum and pelvic ultrasound. What I now know (and suspected at the time) to be a vaginal cuff tear was being prodded with instruments. I screamed at them to stop. The pain was so intense I thought I might die. There was a team of about six or seven people buzzing around me. I felt like I was going in and out of consciousness. I want to pass out, but again, I don’t. I needed to tell them something. “Don’t give me Dexamethasone, I have angle-closure glaucoma.” I’m always scared that I’ll have an angle-closure attack, apparently even when I feel like I’m dying from pain. There was some commotion but then they carried on what they were doing.

They asked me if I wanted to see my husband.

“He’s not my husband.”


“He’s not my boyfriend, we’ve just started dating.”

It went silent which made everything feel even worse.

“Yes please get him.”

Sometime during this event, I was given some epic painkillers. The next thing I remember was being wheeled into another room. The doctor told me I had a cuff tear and that I would need an operation to repair it. They wouldn’t know how serious it was until I had a CT scan. They hoped that it could be repaired vaginally, but there might be a chance that other organs were involved and they would have to open my laparotomy scar again. This thought destroyed me.

He came in, and his look of concern equally soothed and scared me. The trauma of a cancer diagnosis came flooding back. The realization that it’s not over. That no matter what I do it seems like I’m tied to this hospital. It’s never going to end. The realization that no matter how much I wished it wasn’t true, I had now dragged the guy I was dating into my cancer life. I hated it.

As the pain meds kicked in, he held my hand, stroked my head, and told me it would all be OK. I had already had four operations in this hospital, countless A&E visits, and an almost unbelievable number of consults, one of which was a cancer diagnosis. Each one entirely by myself. This was the first time in over two years I had someone holding my hand in a hospital bed. Again, equally comforting and scary.

It didn’t take long until I was completely numb from whatever drugs they had pumped me full of. I went into the CT scanner feeling absolutely defeated. Back here again. Emergency CT. The third year in a row.

The following morning I had surgery to repair the tear. Luckily it was caught early enough that it could be repaired without opening my laparotomy scar up. I spent three nights in the hospital wondering if this would all be too much for the guy I was casually dating.

Returning to my apartment was a lot to take in. The open bottle of wine on the table, my clothes on the floor, the scene of the trauma. The guy I was casually dating continued to show up in the right way. He came over and cooked for me, stayed the night, and erased my doubt that he would leave because of this.

A few weeks after this we took some time apart. I still don’t know if it was because of the intensity we found ourselves in because of the hospital experience. I expect it didn’t help, but I really don’t think I can blame it.

After some space, we decided to give it a proper go. It was exciting but terrifying—my first relationship after cancer. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long as I would have liked.

As much as it would be easy to blame the cancer, my past experiences, infertility, and the intense hospital visit we found ourselves in for it not working out, I can’t. It simply wasn’t the right time for us. I find myself grateful that my first dating and relationship experience after cancer was with someone so honest, caring, and understanding.

What I wasn’t ready for was what the breakup would unravel. He was a light after a very dark time, and along with some great new friends, he was helping me find joy in my life again. So when he disappeared suddenly I found myself under a ton of unprocessed trauma. Breakups are always challenging, but after cancer they are particularly wounding. I fell apart completely.


One Year On…

I’m now one year on from that breakup, and it’s been almost one year since I last wrote about my first dating and sex experience after cancer. 

Since then I’ve thrown myself into the world of dating and been met with varying reactions to my cancer and cuff tear stories. With every experience I’ve bumbled my way through, I’ve learned more about myself and what I need. I’ve done a lot of healing both mentally and physically over the last year. Dating and sex continue to be scary and sometimes overwhelming, but now I have the tools I need to manage it better. 

I now see my scar as a sign of resilience and my body confidence is growing. I’m going to keep sharing, keep being vulnerable, and keep being all the parts of me. I trust this is how I will find “my people.” Despite going through these traumatic experiences, I’ve found a new version of myself and I’m stepping into that power.

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