En español | Six years ago, Deanna Savage had breast cancer, followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction. After more than a year of surgeries and treatment, she returned to online dating.
But her body felt different than in past years of dating: She had new “pucks and dents” in places and lost sensitivity in some areas. And she had something extra accompanying her on dates: her cancer diagnosis.
"I either mentioned it right away or I didn't mention it for a while,” says Savage, 52, who works for a wine distributor in Milwaukee and founded a nonprofit breast cancer support organization, Savage Support. “Both ways scare people off because everyone has their own relationship or even explanation of what cancer is.… And so they projected that onto me.”
Cancer and its treatments affect not only the look of patients’ bodies but also sensation, mechanics and stamina, says experts like Savage, who is also a mentor with ABCD, or After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, a Milwaukee one-on-one mentoring organization. Yet companionship, romance and intimacy foster healing, says Yanette Tactuk, a licensed clinical social worker with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Resources for Dating After Cancer
Here are some places that help with navigating dating and sex in the face of a cancer diagnosis.
• Check with your local cancer center. Many now have survivorship clinics that address issues of wellness and lifestyle, including relationships and sexuality.
• Ask your health care provider or chapter of the American Cancer Society about in-person or online support groups.
• Look for peer mentoring programs at cancer centers or organizations such as ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis) to connect you one-on-one with someone who has had a similar experience.
• Consider reputable online sources such as Cancer.net, sponsored by the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, which has information on dating and sexuality.
• Find a therapist or certified sex educator. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists has a searchable online directory.
"It's important to feel comfortable and confident, regardless of where you are in your treatment process and regardless of your relationship status,” Tactuk says. “The advantages of finding ways to love and accept oneself and to connect with others are physical, psychological, emotional and relational.”
Dating after cancer
If you're ready to start dating, begin by thinking about why, says Jeffrey Gaudet, a licensed clinical social worker in Mashpee, Massachusetts, who has led cancer survivorship programs. Dating could include physical intimacy or not, he says.
"Understand your body, but also understand where you're coming from emotionally,” he says. “Someone might be looking for a fully developed relationship that might lead to marriage, or they might be saying, ‘Hey, you know what, I just need someone to be with me.'”
Consider issues you've had with dating in the past, he says, such as how you communicate or feelings about your body. If you are ready for intimacy, don't be shy about gathering information on how to make it work. As cancer patients live longer, more resources are available to improve the quality of their lives, including sexually. Don't worry that you're the only one who has a body that's not looking or working quite as it used to.
"This is a really common experience,” says Don Dizon, M.D., professor of medicine at Brown University and founder of the Sexual Health First Responders Program in Providence, Rhode Island. “If you look at survey data, those who report some degree of sexual compromise is anywhere between 50 and 90 percent.”
Physicians and patients rarely discuss relationships or sex because cancer checkups are so focused on survival or treatment plans, Dizon says. Patients may be too distracted or embarrassed to ask questions, or think they are alone in having issues. A survey by the health organization Livestrong found that fewer than half of patients bring up these issues, he says.
"It's really not until people leave that room that they start thinking, Boy, I really wanted to ask those other questions,” Dizon says. “We, as clinicians, assume things that are important will be brought to our attention by patients themselves, [but] when it comes to sexual health, that's not going to happen.”
Discussing cancer and sexuality
For starters, he says, understand who you are as a sexual being. What's your perspective on dating and sex? How do you respond to relationship cues? Are you able to communicate with a partner? Are you one to jump right into a relationship or expose your inner life slowly?
And be flexible about what intimacy might look like, Dizon says.
"What we're learning is that couples can … find their own ways to experience pleasure and experience satisfaction,” he says.
Ellen Barnard, a social worker and certified sex educator who co-owns A Woman's Touch in Madison, Wisconsin, a sex education resource center and sexual health products shop, describes herself as a “problem solver.” One reason she and co-owner Myrtle Wilhite, M.D., started the shop 25 years ago was to help breast cancer patients find ways to improve sexual response without hormone replacement therapy.
Their website has a downloadable resource sheet on “Healthy Sexuality After Cancer,” as well as a place to submit questions. These days, Barnard and Wilhite work with customers with all kinds of cancers and also train health care providers.
"There's plenty that can be done.… Nobody needs to lose their enjoyment of sexual pleasure,” Barnard says.
And remember, it's unlikely that anyone over 50 will have a body that works perfectly.
"The most important thing that I try to instill in people is not to see themselves as ‘damaged,'” Dizon says. “Getting older comes with its own complications, but cancer's not the only complication people will be bringing to the table.”