Dating may be the furthest thing from the minds of people coping with a cancer diagnosis. But for many, it is the challenges of dating that are at the forefront.
Along with these challenges are a seemingly endless trail of thoughts and questions: When will I feel ready to start dating again? How will it affect my sex-life? Why would anyone want to date a cancer patient? How do I tell the person I am with that I have cancer? What should I tell them? The list is never-ending and the complexity of feelings that arise can be overwhelming.
But no matter where a person is in their cancer journey, whether they have a new diagnosis, are in active treatment, or are posttreatment survivors, to have fears and concerns about dating and sexual intimacy is normal. Empowering these patients to build upon their strengths so as not to let these fears adversely affect their current relationships or prevent them from pursuing future relationships can play a huge role in the healing process.
Regardless of where a person is in their cancer journey, adjusting to the emotional and physical changes that accompany a diagnosis can be challenging. As a professional oncology social worker at CancerCare, I have found that there is no right or wrong when addressing the challenges of dating but there are ways to provide support along the way.
Slow and Steady Dating is never easy, especially when cancer is the unwelcomed third wheel. Encourage patients to pace themselves. Their relationships may not be exactly as they were before cancer came into the picture, but then again neither are they.
The same can be said for those not in relationships and are looking to begin dating. Nevertheless, encourage them to start off small, such as an informal group activity or social event. These are opportunities to socialize and relax with friends in a way that can make meeting new groups of people feel less daunting. Doing so can help build confidence and self-esteem.
Be Informed There are many emotional and physical changes that can accompany a diagnosis. Fatigue, pain, decreased libido, and emotional sensitivity are just a few of the struggles patients may identify. Maintain an open dialogue with patients and help to encourage them to communicate with their health care team as a way of staying informed of the unique challenges and struggles cancer can have on dating.
No one gets through cancer without some fear or anxiety. It can be helpful for patients to discuss these fears with those around them rather than trying to shoulder the load on their own.
Although this may be a source of embarrassment for some patients, remind them that you are here to help. Breaking through the silence and helping patients give a voice to the thoughts and questions that undoubtedly race through their minds can help them feel a sense of empowerment. Patients may also benefit from talking to a specialist to help address any complex issues surrounding their sexual health.
Disclosure The decision to disclose one’s cancer diagnosis is very personal, as are the questions of when to do so and how. While there may never be the perfect time to disclose, the best time to do so is when the patient feels ready.
Before deciding, patients may want to consider how they would like the conversation to go. Some patients may benefit from preparing — writing down what they would like to say or even practicing with a friend can help relieve some of their anxiety. Before sharing, encourage patients to consider what would make them feel most comfortable. Being open and honest goes a long way. Doing so can help build trust and is the foundation of a lasting relationship.
Intimacy and Sexuality Talking about intimacy or sexuality in a relationship, though at times uncomfortable, is very important. Remind patients that intimacy is not just about sex. It is also touching, affection, and closeness with someone, not just physically but emotionally as well.
The effects of cancer and treatments can also negatively impact a patient’s body image and may lead some to feel self-conscious. Help patients address these insecurities head-on by maintaining open communication and encouraging them to do the same. It can also be extremely helpful for patients to speak with a professional oncology social worker, such as the ones at CancerCare who provide free services to help patients and their loved ones navigate the challenges that arise along with a cancer diagnosis.
Reassure patients that, no matter what the diagnosis or treatment, there are many ways to be intimate and feel pleasure. Despite that aspects of sexuality may be different, intimacy and pleasure are possible. Whether in a new or long-standing relationship, encourage patients to be open to these differences.
Get Support Remind patients that having a strong network of support is crucial. Although friends and family can be a good source of support, they are only the beginning. Encourage patients to seek professional support as well. CancerCare provides free counseling with licensed oncology social workers who can help connect patients to other resources in their community.
Individual counseling allows patients the opportunity to address all the complexities and challenges that dating poses following a cancer diagnosis. Attending a support group that offers them the opportunity to share their experiences with others in a similar situation can offer validation that they are not alone.
Some patients may have different reactions, views, and experiences with dating after a cancer diagnosis, but communication and understanding are important starting points in ensuring patients receive the support they need.
Angelique Caba is director of social work administration at CancerCare.