Dating After Cancer

When it comes to revealing your cancer treatment results, timing is everything.

Rebekah Repper of Sanford, N.C., was 35 and married when she received a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ in her left breast in 1998. She underwent a mastectomy, healed well and moved on with her life, giving birth to a son 13 months after her surgery. Although Repper says her husband supported her throughout treatment and recovery, they eventually decided to divorce.

As she entered this new phase of her life, an important question emerged: when and how should she tell a prospective sexual partner about her cancer experience and the fact that she has only one breast and a scar that runs from her sternum to her armpit?

“This is an issue I hear quite often, especially when I lecture,” observes Sueann Mark, PhD, a clinical sexologist in San Francisco. “It’s the number one question I get from single cancer survivors.

”Uncertainty regarding the “when” and “how much” is understandable, therapists say. Bring up the issue too soon and you risk scaring away a potential partner; bring it up too late and the person may become angry that you withheld such an important detail.

No Single Answer

“There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” notes Mark, who is a breast cancer survivor. “I can’t say ‘on the third date’ or ‘the fifth date’ or ‘in your online profile.’ It’s different for everyone.”

But for those who bear physical scars of their cancer journey beneath their clothing, it’s definitely time to talk when intimacy appears imminent.

That’s what Repper did, though she had concerns about the reaction to her mastectomy scar. “That’s not something you want to spring on a partner as a surprise,” she observes.

When Repper found herself in a serious relationship with a man she truly cared about, she was upfront about her mastectomy. “I told him that it is not a ragged injury but a surgical scar, but nonetheless, I was missing a breast.” Her boyfriend was unfazed.

Men Equally Affected

The physical effects of cancer treatment also affect men and require the same pre-intimacy conversation. Craig Roderique, 56, of Blanchard, Okla., received proton therapy for prostate cancer in 2010, which left him with sexual dysfunction that requires the use of Viagra (sildenafil). The former air traffic controller says he delayed bringing up the subject with the woman he had started dating until it became apparent that their relationship was progressing.

He says his approach was simple. “I told her what I had gone through and waited for her response, which was totally positive,” Roderique says. “Because we seemed to be clicking at that point, she was totally sympathetic, and there was no negative impact on our relationship from that point forward.”

Body image and self-esteem issues can be even more pronounced when the physical effects of cancer are apparent, as Catherine Danielson of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., learned when she underwent a total laryngectomy in 1999 for throat cancer. Danielson uses an electronic voice box, which she believes has cost her several potential relationships. “The unintentional rejection would really sting,” she says, “but eventually I came to be content with myself.”

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