Relationships, Dating and Breast Cancer

| December 29, 2015

social-phone-woman-love-42347926_lBy DR. PAULETTE SHERMAN


As a psychologist, relationship expert and a psychotherapist for 20 years I specialize in dating and relationships. I am an author and run a dating school. I’m also a breast cancer survivor of three and a half years so I understand this topic as a patient and a healer. When diagnosed with stage 2 triple negative breast cancer, I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation and lost all my hair. At that time I was a mom of a one year old and a three year old and had been married six years.

Relationships are very important and good ones can provide fun, vitality, support and meaning, especially during the challenging times of breast cancer. In my experience, even under normal circumstances people date at all ages to have fun, to develop a long-term relationship or to marry. Sometimes they are dating for the first time or later after divorce or being widowed.

There are 70,000 cancer survivors between the ages of 17-44 years old and many of them probably planned to date and marry before cancer derailed them. This realization often causes fear, anger, sadness and helplessness. Singles of all ages usually would not know how to go out and invite someone new into all this chaos when they are feeling so overwhelmed themselves. If you do want to date, I have seen it successfully happen.


Here are some tips for telling a date that you have cancer:

  1. BE STRAIGHTFORWARD: Get it over with by the 2nd or 3rd date.  You may as well know if they can accept it before you invest more energy.
  2. NOTICE THE ENERGY with which you tell them: If you let them know you’re getting treatment but continuing with your life and are handling it, it might be easier for them to accept.
  3. SET LOW EXPECTIONS FOR THEM: Dating should be fun in the beginning and you can stress that you have an existing support team so that your date doesn’t suddenly feel that they will need to become your caretaker right away. You can even say something to this effect at some point.
  4. TELL THEM YOU NORMALLY FEEL FINE and if you don’t, you will let them know. Also be clear how deeply you want to go into details of your medical diagnosis.
  5. KEEP YOUR PRIORITY ON YOURSELF AND YOUR HEALING. The right person will work around the reality of your situation and will respect it.
  6. DON’T LIE but you can decide what’s appropriate to discuss for the level of the relationship. You can just say you are going through treatment for breast cancer and sometimes you may not feel like yourself or may be extra tired.

It’s important to be realistic about the pros and cons of dating with cancer.  Dating can be an up and down process, exposing ourselves to possible rejection. Dating may involve time and energy that you’d rather spend on your own healing. It could end in heartbreak and perhaps you feel that you’re already depressed enough. But on the positive side, dating can be a positive distraction that makes you feel normal and adds positive excitement to life. Plus, it can provide added support and joy throughout a very rough time when you find a great person with whom to spend time and start a relationship.

Research says that cancer doesn’t significantly impact women’s overall marriage rate. Marrying with cancer is more common than in the past.1 Kris Carr is a cancer survivor and author of Crazy, Sexy Cancer.  She has stage 4 cancer and dated someone during her treatment whom she then married.  I’ve also had clients who had advanced cancer and dated online to successfully form a successful relationship.  And of course, even as in regular dating, there are times when it doesn’t work out.

Cancer patients often use regular dating sites to meet other singles like:,, You can also use cancer-related dating sites so your illness is known from the start and you aren’t rejected for that reason later.  Some cancer-related dating sites are:,,

I like dating sites because everyone there is usually looking to meet someone. You can begin conversations from home in your pajamas and schedule dates at your convenience, near home on the days you aren’t in treatment. You can also go out with friends to events, try fix-ups or join cancer-related events or groups with other people who are going through something similar.

In terms of dating resources, there’s a book written by Kairol Rosenthal who had thyroid cancer at 27 called, Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20’s and 30’s2.  There’s also a movie called, 50/50 about dating with cancer written by Will Reiser, who had cancer.3  Recently there was the movie, The Fault in Our Stars, where two teens, both who have different cancer conditions, fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group.4

What about those who are in a long-term relationship or married?

Common complaints from patients are that their partner doesn’t understand them, they don’t communicate and they aren’t increasing their responsibilities at home so that you can focus on your healing. A book that is often given to husbands of breast cancer patients is, The Breast Cancer Husband by Marc Silver.5  This book can educate your spouse about what you are going through, so you may choose to put it on the night stand.  It may also be wise to go to therapy together to make a plan to communicate and work through all the changes.

Illness is hard on the person going through it and upon their spouse, who may become a caretaker and will probably have more to do. Stress definitely increases after illness hits and some marriages disintegrate. Some say that the divorce rate for chronically ill people is 75% versus the 50% rate for the normal population.6 This statistic may not be agreed upon by all but the divorce rate for chronically ill people is higher than normal.

Research shows that the quality of one’s marriage affects the patient’s recovery. In the Journal, Cancer, they followed married and co-habitating women with cancer five years after recovery to see how the quality of their marriage affected them. Women in good marriages did best. Women in distressed relationships recovered more slowly and had more side-effects from treatment.

Dealing with illness as a team increases intimacy in couples, according to a study in The Journal of Social & Personal Relationships.

Communication is important; 94% of cancer patients value the importance of their partner understanding their feelings. One woman said that when her husband took an ‘I Can Cope Class’ this significantly helped their relationship. It’s important to learn to listen and to use ‘I’ statements to say five positive things to your partner for every negative remark and to support each other’s accomplishments.

There are also some problematic communication patterns to be aware of too.  Research on marriage has revealed four communication patterns that lead to divorce. John Gottman dubbed these, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

When you criticize your partner you are basically implying that there is something wrong with them. When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint you are being defensive. Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts yourself on a higher ground than your partner. Mocking your partner, calling them names, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are examples. Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation or shuts down. If you notice you two are doing these things often, seek out couples therapy.

Your partner can’t be your only support.  It’s too much pressure on them to be everything and to be perfect. It’s great to have a cancer friend or support group and your own therapy. This will put less pressure on your significant other. They have stress too and need support.

Studies show that people who engage in hobbies and interests and develop themselves adjust better to illness and are more resilient and likely to live longer. Take classes, do things you love and join a support group so that you have connections and things that are important to you outside of your main relationship.

Families who share feelings are better able to talk about the diagnosis and they cope better. Defensive reactions are common but they create a rift in intimacy in couples. Communication avoidance can feel very painful and the patient feels alone in that relationship and this can cause the end of that relationship. Common dysfunctional responses from the significant other of the cancer patient are withdrawal, lack of empathy, depression or over-protectiveness.  Couples therapy can point out these patterns and can hopefully help couples move beyond them.

Here is another suggestion that can help couples adjust:  Date Night. Marital research has shown that Date Night is hugely helpful in preserving good marriages and avoiding divorce. A recent study by The National Marriage Project called The Date Night Opportunity confirmed the effectiveness of a weekly date night for those who are living together and for married folk. Weekly couples time was equally important for married couples with kids and without. Couples who had ‘couples time’ weekly, were more likely to have higher quality relationships and lower divorce rates than those who didn’t.

Weekly date nights increased communication and removed everyday distractions, it increased novelty, and romance and couples reported greater sexual satisfaction.

Couples who have their date night once a week were 3.5 times more likely to be much happier in their marriages.  It seems even more important to have a date night with the stress of illness.

Here are some tips for your date night:

•    Don’t discuss serious topics.
•    Try something fun and new, like dancing.
•    Share things you don’t know about each other.
•    Have fun and laugh.
•    Express positive things about each other.
•    Go out alone, not with kids or other people.
•    It needn’t be expensive. Do something free like
have a picnic in the park.

Please take care of yourself and your relationships. Think about how you would like to show up, as a caretaker or as the patient going through it. In the end, it’s an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, intimacy and coping skills.




Category: Grow

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