How to Navigate Dating With Cancer

How and when to share your cancer diagnosis when dating

What should you know about dating after a cancer diagnosis? When is the right time to share your diagnosis, and how should you do it?

Let's face it: dating is complicated these days. It's full of unnerving decisions, from figuring out how long to wait before calling, to choosing the right time to meet the parents. But when you throw a cancer diagnosis and treatment into the dating dynamics, it can be even more stressful. The decision to reveal your cancer to a new love interest may not be an easy one to make. What will their reaction be? Will you scare them off? Will they think of you differently?

Romantic couple at a dinner party
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Deciding Who to Tell Is Important

Who you choose to tell about your cancer is a personal decision. Some people are selective in whom they confide in; others are more open with their cancer journey. You don't have to tell everyone you date that you have cancer. Cancer might be a big part of your life, but it doesn't define who you are.

However, you should tell those with whom you are developing serious, possibly permanent relationships.

Deciding When to Talk About Your Cancer

The question then becomes, when is the right time to talk about your cancer? Here are a few tips that will help you decide when and how to tell a new person in your life about your cancer:

  • Follow your intuition. You'll probably intuitively know when the time is right to tell your love interest that you have cancer. Maybe you'll do so over a romantic dinner, or during a long walk. It might be a spontaneous decision, or it could require planning. Keep in mind that your attitude about your cancer may not be matched by your partner. The word "cancer" makes some people nervous. Tell them during a time when they can process adequately what you've brought into the open.
  • Don't wait too long. If you've waited until your wedding rehearsal dinner to reveal your secret, then you've delayed it too long. Yes, there is a right time to share such important information, but it's not a discussion you should put off. If you wait too long, your partner might feel angry, hurt, or betrayed once they know. Healthy relationships thrive on trust, and if you aren't being honest, then your partner may take it as a sign that you may be deceitful in other things.
  • Be honest and forthcoming. When you do decide to talk about your diagnosis and treatment, it's important to do so honestly. By now, you've realized that cancer has affected not only you, but also those who know you. Your partner has a right to know how serious your disease is and how it may potentially affect their life if they are in a relationship with you.
  • Be prepared to answer questions. Your partner will probably have a lot of questions about your type of cancer and how it affects you. He or she may want to know about your treatment and your prognosis. Some questions may seem extreme, but remember that they are valid concerns, so try to address them.
  • Be prepared to continue answering questions. Keep in mind that you have had much longer to come to terms with all that your diagnosis might mean than the other person has. Questions might not come all at once. Time will help the person process everything. Everyone reacts differently, and it's difficult to predict how one person may respond.

Coping With Your Partner's Reaction

Some people may feel that they cannot handle being in a relationship with a person with cancer and may dismiss having a romantic relationship with you. This reaction is usually fueled by fear, but some people really can't handle being around a "sick" person. Personality flaw or not, you may not be able to change their opinion about your cancer, which is okay. You need people around you who are going to support you and lift you up, not bring you down.

If you're feeling terribly frightened about sharing your diagnosis because you are concerned you might receive this type of reaction, you may want to reframe by looking at your situation from another angle. Telling someone whom you just recently started dating or with whom you have become serious that you have cancer is a surefire way to weed out the bad apples from your bunch. Someone who can handle your diagnosis while dating will most certainly be able to better handle the multitude of other concerns that arise when couples have been together a long time.

Hopefully, your partner accepts your diagnosis and sees you instead of the disease. You don't want your cancer to be overlooked and ignored, but you do want them to understand and accept it and realize that it may affect your relationship. Provide a realistic idea of how your diagnosis and treatment may affect them as your significant other. If they can embrace you, cancer and all, then you have probably found a good match that may last through treatment and beyond.

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A Cancer Survivor's Husband on Just Being There

Cancer Is Not Only a Negative

If you've truly shared your diagnosis with the right person, they will see that not only can people who have had cancer date and love again, but that they may be stronger and more resilient for having been through the experience. Studies tell us that cancer changes people in good ways as well as bad. These studies, which look at what has been termed "post-traumatic growth," have found that many people emerge from cancer treatment with better priorities and much more compassion for others than before diagnosis, and that they present an endearing combination of strength and humility that may not have been present before their cancer experience.

If it doesn't work the first time, don't give up. You may have to kiss a few frogs, but a true prince (or princess) will recognize how the fire of cancer can result in beautiful things.

For the Partner

If you're the partner of someone who has told you they have cancer, you may be trying to come to grips with what this really means for each of you and for your relationship. Keep in mind as you cope with your feelings that it was likely extremely difficult for your new significant other to share his or her diagnosis. Check out a few tips on what to say (and what not to say) to someone with cancer as you move in whichever direction is best for both of you. You may also want to check out these thoughts on what it's really like to live with cancer to gain insight that can help you understand one another.

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  1. Kolokotroni P, Anagnostopoulos F, Tsikkinis A. Psychosocial factors related to posttraumatic growth in breast cancer survivors: a review. Women Health. 2014;54(6):569-92. doi:10.1080/03630242.2014.899543