In Sickness and in Health: Dating Apps in the Cancer World
When Laura Brashier received a diagnosis of stage 4 cervical cancer at age 37, her life came screeching to a halt. She was prepared for the possibility of a hysterectomy, extensive radiation and chemotherapy — and even the reality of never being able to bear children. What she wasn’t prepared for, however, was how to adapt to her “new normal” after the cancer was gone.
“The interesting thing about cancer is that here you are, just trying to survive, and life around you goes on,” Brashier says. “People go about their business, and you’re over on the sidelines, just watching. Eventually, you really have that desire to jump back into that mainstream.”
Being single often includes dating, but that is an uncomfortable and often taboo topic for people affected by cancer.
“Some of the most frustrating things that cancer patients deal with, when it comes to dating, are struggling with body image and self-esteem,” says Sarah Paul, LCSW, manager of the child, adolescent and young adult program at CancerCare, a national organization dedicated to providing free, professional support services to anyone affected by cancer. “(Appearance) changes are usually the first things that happen when you’re undergoing cancer treatment, and a lot of dating apps and websites focus on that first look.”
Just as patients in treatment struggle with whether to add a line about their diagnosis in their profile or post an older picture to mask hair loss, survivors of cancer often find it difficult to put themselves out there. They grapple with questions about when to reveal their survivorship or any longer-term side effects of their past treatment.
Brashier, whose lifesaving radiation left her unable to have intercourse, is no stranger to these insecurities. After years of avoiding the conversation when friends and family asked her why she wasn’t dating, she decided to look online. “I thought, ‘Everything’s online nowadays,’” she says. “‘I wonder if there’s a dating site.’”
Her search uncovered a vast assortment of websites catering to a variety of people; however, she found nothing designed for others like her. She was shocked. “There are thousands of us on the planet,” Brashier says. “We live in these bodies we don’t always have control over, and people never talk about it.”
So, on a mission to solve what she calls the unspoken epidemic of cancer patients and survivors struggling with living life in quiet solitude, she started her own website.
CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE WHO UNDERSTAND
Brashier launched RomanceOnly.com in 2011. With the tagline “intimacy…without intercourse,” the website now connects 14,000 users across 126 countries based on a geographic radius they choose and general interests, Brashier says.
Notably absent from each user’s profile: the reason for joining. After all, the point of the site is to remove the need to explain oneself when trying to navigate dating after a lifechanging diagnosis. “We don’t ask,” Brashier says. “The fact that they’re even on the site is a huge applause.”
Six years before the launch of RomanceOnly, Darryl Mitteldorf, LCSW, embarked on a similar mission. After founding Malecare.org, selfdescribed as “America’s leading men’s cancer survivor support and advocacy national nonprofit organization,” in 1997, Mitteldorf saw another opportunity to make a difference: connecting people with cancer not only on a peer-to-peer support level but also on a romantic level.
“I just started learning how single cancer survivors really struggled to find purpose in life,” Mitteldorf says. “I saw a need for an arena for people to meet each other where they didn’t have to explain themselves over and over and over again … to meet other people who understand.”
Thus, CancerMatch.com was born. Since launching in February 2005, it has grown to serve over 1.3 million members, Mitteldorf says.
Similar to RomanceOnly, CancerMatch trusts that its users are there for the right reasons and never verifies whether the diagnoses shared on profiles are actually legitimate. Mitteldorf describes CancerMatch as selfpolicing: A disclaimer at the bottom of the site urges, “Remember — report ANYONE who asks for money or makes you feel uncomfortable in any way.”
“We obviously can’t verify that people have cancer. We’re not asking for doctors’ notes,” he says. “But people (who may be dishonest) are relatively easy to spot — they don’t know what their treatments really are or what their side effects may be. And those people get reported back to my team, and we delete those profiles instantly, as well as track their IP addresses to make sure they don’t sign on again.”
Any platform brings risks, Mitteldorf says: “From Facebook on down, all of these sites have people trying to scam others … but what’s really nice, though, as far as I know, is that out of over a million users, we haven’t had a single real issue.”
RomanceOnly charges $9.99 per month; CancerMatch is sustained by donations made to MaleCare.org. “It’s entirely free,”Mitteldorf says. “There’s no advertising or anything like that. It’s just there for people to use.”
On both sites, users determine their own level of privacy and anonymity. For example, they don’t have to post pictures, and many use fake names. Over time, after they begin to form a connection with someone, they can decide to disclose more. “The depth of your profile can’t be read by just anyone,” Mitteldorf says. “Both people have to say ‘I want to meet you’ or ‘I want to message you.’” In addition, both sites emphasize that users aren’t required to seek romantic relationships. CancerMatch’s homepage urges potential users to “build your own network of contacts,” “meet or mentor,” “join, create or lead your own support group” and “meet new friends and, maybe, even fall in love.”
“We aren’t meant to be alone,” Brashier says. “We’re meant to have companionship. Even if you don’t want to date and you end up meeting a friend, it’s just a place to talk with someone who can relate to how you’re feeling.”
Despite the growing user bases of websites designed for people with cancer, public awareness remains relatively low. As Brashier states, “People just don’t want to talk about it.” Even so, within the cancer community, the interest is there. In a 2012 discussion board on StupidCancer.org, a nonprofit organization that focuses on young adult cancer advocacy, research and support, one member started a discussion titled “Dating.” “I think there should be a Match. com-like section of StupidCancer.org dedicated to singles who had/have cancer and are searching for relationships,” the post reads.
Over the course of six years, a steady flood of comments has followed.
“I agree totally. Dating is hard … even harder with the triviality of online dating sites,” says one user.
“Yes, I agree!” says another. “It seems like every time I meet new people, my cancer somehow gets mentioned or comes up in the conversation. That’s usually the end of it.”
In 2014, Elle Green* — at the time, a recently single, 30-year-old breast cancer survivor — wrote a blog post on FirstDescents.org titled “Back in the Game: Dating After Cancer.” She mused about the unique difficulties of finding love as a survivor: “OkCupid has a lot of search criteria to help you find your ideal match, but I was pretty sure ‘cancer survivor’ wasn’t one of them.”
In addition to voicing concerns about scaring people away before they got to know her and how to handle the revelation of her mastectomy scar (“the right time for this conversation is somewhere between the first date and the moment where you see each other naked”), Green sums up the reality of dating after cancer in one simple sentence: “I find that there’s a weird tension between wanting to share in the name of authenticity and wishing you didn’t have to in the first place.”
“In general, it’s hard to meet people, even without cancer,” Paul says. “Dating can be really challenging … in a culture that’s focused less on commitment and more on casual dating. So, for someone who’s diagnosed with a serious illness and might be looking for something more … if they make a connection with someone and they do choose to disclose (their diagnosis), they’re being completely vulnerable.”
Green agrees. “When you’re dating at age 30, most people have not experienced something like cancer,” she says. “For me, it actually got harder once I wasn’t in active treatment anymore, because there were no external signs of my cancer history. When you’re bald, it’s evident. But when you have hair and you look ‘normal,’ it becomes trickier, because you have to decide when to tell someone.”
Removing those initial anxieties makes a world of a difference, according to Brashier and Mitteldorf. “The CancerMatch experience dissolves awkwardness,” Mitteldorf says. “You never have to apologize for the way you feel when you’re dating a person with another cancer diagnosis. … You don’t have to have the ‘I have cancer’ talk. You never even have to bring it up.”
Adds Brashier: “It’s about finding a community of people who understand what you’re going through, a community that can relate to your new normal.”
FINDING HOPE AND HAPPINESS
Although many patients and survivors feel that a dating website designed specifically for people with cancer can help in their search for love, others worry about overidentifying with their diagnosis. “Some struggle with feeling that people only see them as a cancer patient or a cancer survivor,” Paul says. “Embracing your survivorship is such a beautiful thing, if that’s your choice. But for some people, after they finish treatment, they’re ready to pick up and move on and leave that part of their life behind, which is also completely fine.”
Above all, Paul urges anyone considering jumping back into the dating scene during or after treatment to stay true to themselves, take it slow and prioritize making connections with others, whether romantic or not. “Improving your social surroundings and your support system can really improve your quality of life in general,” she says. “Whether it’s dating, whether it’s joining a support group … that connection makes a difference in healing.”
Brashier and Mitteldorf agree — they’ve seen it firsthand. “I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have partnered up and even gotten married through CancerMatch, and it’s been enormously gratifying,” Mitteldorf says. “Support groups are about hope; CancerMatch is about happiness.”
“I thrive on the positive emails that people send me,” Brashier says. One, now highlighted as a Success Story on the RomanceOnly website, reads: “After one and one-half years of driving 150 miles one way and three hours the other every weekend, Sheila and I decided we wanted to move closer to one another, as we just love being together. Our unique intimate relationship is beyond anything either of us thought possible. … We both really thought we’d be alone forever, and instead we’ve decided to be together forever.”