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Dating After Cancer: Young Survivors May be Own Worst Enemies

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and images of red roses, candlelit dinners, and dark chocolates are blossoming all over television and magazines. It’s easy to get swept up in the mood, except maybe for those young cancer survivors out there who are thinking: what’s so romantic about five-inch surgery scars and a preoccupation with death?

Dating is never easy, but it is especially hard for people who have gone through cancer. Now in addition to avoiding the ordinary social pitfalls, you also have to navigate a new minefield.

When do you first mention the c-word—while you’re flirting at the bar or after your fifth date? If you do hook up, how do you prepare your partner for altered body parts? One survivor of testicular cancer put it bluntly: “How do you tell a girl that you only have one ball?” Worst of all: what if you do share your medical history and the person walks away?

There is no denying it. There are people out there who won’t be able to deal with your cancer experience, and they could break your heart.

But here is another powerful truth: oncology social workers who run dating workshops have noticed that it’s often the cancer survivor who cuts things off first. Many survivors anticipate rejection and push new partners away to protect themselves.

Several young survivors I know have gone that route. Mina, who had just finished law school when she got diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, didn’t date during treatment. A few months out, she met a guy at a bar, and after a few dates, she told him about her cancer experience. He took the news well, she said, but then she added, “I didn’t tell him I had a bilateral mastectomy, because I didn’t want to sound like even more of a freak show.” She never gave him the chance to reject her; she dumped him before they got to the bedroom.

Young adult survivors are even more likely to expect rejection than older survivors. Why? Because we think we are flawed in ways that most of our peers are not. “Every single time that I have been in a room with young cancer survivors–every single time, I can’t think of an exception–I hear two words: damaged goods,” explains the Page Tolbert, an oncology social worker at the Post Treatment Center of Memorial Sloan Kettering. “In middle age, everyone feels like damaged goods. But to be young and feel as if you are not all that you should be or that pieces of you will never be back in place, it is a terrible feeling. You feel vulnerable, because who’s going to want what you have to offer when other people’s package is fuller?”

We experience that sense of damage in insidious ways. Some of us think that a person we are flirting with will lose interest as soon as they find out about the illness. Some feel more self conscious about being naked in front of a new lover. Some feel a tinge of shame, as if cancer reflects a hidden defect. None of these feelings bolster our belief in our desirability. After all, of all various traits that can make a person sexy and attractive to a prospective lover, cancer is not one of them, right?

But according to Tolbert, young survivors make a lot of assumptions about what potential mates will think about our cancer experience, and many of those assumptions turn out to be wrong. She remembers one kind, compassionate young guy who came to her support group on dating. One day he said, “I shouldn’t even be here, because the surgery I had left me impotent, and I know that if you can’t perform the basic sex act, a woman’s not going to want to go out with you.”

Right away the group shouted out a chorus of “Wrong!” They said, “You are the kind of guy we are looking for!” One woman said, “Is it a problem that you can’t have intercourse the normal way? Yeah, you’d have to figure other stuff out, but you are making an assumption about what women want.” Another woman said, “It is number three on my list of things that I look for in a man. It’s behind ‘loves me’ and ‘treats me well.’” Then another replied, “Are you kidding? It’s behind ‘has a sense of humor.”

Cancer does not spell the end of romantic love. It may mean we have to take a few more risks and expose ourselves more, but there is no reason to give up hope or to hold ourselves on the sidelines. After all, survivors know how to handle risk and fear.

I talked to one young guy who was about to move from Los Angeles to London to be with a man he had met after going through a brutal round of treatment for nasal cancer. The relationship was still new, but he had a good feeling about it. “I am doing this because I don’t want to find out the cancer is back and I didn’t do anything. I am risking having my heart broken, but it can’t be worse than dying.”


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