Ask the Expert: How and When to Talk about Cancer to a Potential Dating Partner

For people who are dating after a cancer diagnosis, one of the most common questions is when and how to tell a new partner about your cancer history. There is no one strategy that fits for everyone, but a few guidelines may help:

  • Cancer becomes so central in their lives of some men or women that they routinely introduce themselves as a cancer survivor, or at least give that information in the first few minutes after meeting a new potential partner. If you tell someone right away that you have had cancer you do not have to worry that you will fall in love–only to be pushed away once your secret is out. On the other hand, finding out that someone has had cancer can be pretty scary for a prospective date, especially if you are under age 50. If you do not give a new friendship a little time to develop, it is more likely that the attractive person will flee without taking the time to learn about your best qualities. Sometimes, however, you meet someone who seems like an old friend after talking for a couple of hours. Even if you did not intend to discuss cancer, you may confide in someone like that who makes you feel special and understood.
  • On the other hand, if you have finished cancer treatment you may hope it can remain a part of your past, at least unless things get serious. It is best to bring up the topic of cancer before a relationship starts getting really intense, however. It is especially important to discuss a cancer history before you and your partner make important decisions, like moving in together or getting married. If you date someone for several months before mentioning you have had cancer, your partner may feel angry or betrayed that you kept it a secret. Infertility or a genetic cancer risk in your family may also become an issue as a relationship deepens, especially if children may be in the future.
  • When it is time to talk, choose a place that you find comfortable. Many people prefer to discuss emotional topics in a private place, but if you are worried you will cry, or that your partner will get upset, sometimes a noisy public place, like a restaurant with well-separated tables feels safer. You may have an easier time staying in control when others are around. (Though staying in control is not always necessary.) Avoid times when it would be jarring to talk about your cancer, for example in the middle of a sexual encounter or at a holiday party.
  • What message do you want to give to your partner?  You do not want to be pitied as a cancer victim. You want to come across as a survivor–someone who faced cancer and remains a valuable and lovable person. What is important for your partner to know about your cancer?  Do you want to tell about your experience with diagnosis and treatment or how your life has changed since your cancer? Do you want to talk about your risk of having a recurrence?  If you have advanced disease or are at high risk for recurrence, that information can be especially difficult to share.
  • Scars, ostomies, or sexual problems are important to reveal before getting intimate with someone new. It is better to prepare a new lover by describing an ostomy appliance or a surgical scar before you take off your clothes together. If you feel self-conscious, you may want to start gradually, allowing your partner to caress that area through your clothing at first, and then without clothes. Another factor is lighting. You can begin by caressing in the dark, or with just the light of a candle, working up to letting your partner see your body in daylight. Very often, a new partner will say a mastectomy scar or an ostomy looks better than his or her mental image of how it would be. You will probably feel much more anxious than your partner about how you look
  • If you are using a medical treatment to get erections, or you need vaginal lubricants and moisturizers to avoid pain with sex, it is best to let your partner know. Sometimes men or women try to hide using a treatment for a sexual problem, like taking an erection pill or using a penile injection without telling a new partner or putting on vaginal lubricants in the bathroom before sex. Then you add the burden of a secret to your lovemaking. Unless you are intending to have a hook-up or one-night stand, honesty is a good first step in having good sexual communication with your partner.
  • If you are not sure how to talk to a partner about your cancer, practice with a good friend before you try it for real. You can play yourself, and have the friend take the part of a new dating partner. You may even ask your friend to give you a really negative response (for example: “OMG, I can’t believe it,” or “You had WHAT?”), and rehearse what you would say. When you tell someone in real life about your cancer, it will probably be much easier than you expected.
  • In fact, it is often liberating to imagine the worst thing that could happen and how you would react. Suppose that you are very attracted to a new partner and the feeling seems to be mutual. Then you disclose your cancer and the relationship breaks up. You have already faced cancer treatment. Are you going to die because someone you liked was unwilling to take the risk of getting involved with you?  If this “disaster” happened, what would you still value about your life?  What could you do to mend your hurt feelings? What would help you get back out in the dating scene to find someone more worthy of your feelings?

This educational material is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace, or substitute for, professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read in this educational material.

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