Dating After Cancer

Diving back into dating after fighting cancer can be complicated. Ease back in with tips from a survivor and expert.

By Jessica Lawlor

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Briana R. never expected to find herself back in the dating pool in her early thirties, let alone back in the dating pool after fighting breast cancer and going through an unexpected divorce.

Yet that’s exactly where the 34-year-old Texas resident, nurse and single mom found herself in 2018.

Facing the Unexpected

Two years ago, Briana woke up with a pain in her left breast. Since her mom had fought breast cancer a few years prior, Briana immediately made an appointment with her OB/GYN. Shortly afterward, Briana discovered two lumps in her breast, and decided to have a mammogram as quickly as possible.

She called Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa where her mom had been successfully treated. Within three days, Briana visited Tulsa and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

“At the time I was married, and being 32, I was concerned about having children again,” Briana explains. However, she knew she needed to take action quickly, and dove headfirst into chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and six weeks of radiation.

“I worked the entire time I did chemotherapy,” Briana recalls. “It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”

When she returned to Tulsa for radiation, she discovered her husband cheating on her through their baby’s monitor camera. Briana found herself seeking a separation and eventual divorce.

“I finished with radiation and moved back into my childhood home. I started my life over,” she says.

Starting to Date Again

Jumping back into dating wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t really want to date, but friends and counselors encouraged me to get out there to make friends and meet new people,” Briana recalls. “I wanted to give myself time to heal.”

About nine months after treatment, Briana went on a couple of dates, but never committed.

“I enjoyed it, but I was pretty bruised from my experience with my ex,” she explains. “Plus, being a single mom and a full-time nurse, it was hard to date. I had to be conservative with my time.”

Briana also knew her experience with cancer was going to play a factor in future romantic relationships.

“I imagined sitting down with a guy and saying, ‘Hey, I might get cancer again. Are you prepared to support me?’” Briana remembers. “I always wondered, ‘Are they going to run for the hills?’”

A Surprisingly Successful Setup

After slowly easing back into dating, Briana met someone special — Derrick.

“I was in Austin visiting a friend and she said, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy. He’s nerdy, but he’s a country boy. We think you’ll love him.’”

Briana was skeptical, but her friend invited Derrick over, and they stayed up all night talking.  She knew this was the person she’d been waiting for.

The two began a long-distance relationship, and have been dating now for nearly five months. Briana says she’s introduced Derrick to her daughter Abbi, and feels relieved that she’s let go of her reservations to enjoy dating again.

“Derrick is one of the first people I’ve felt comfortable with. I know he’s not going to turn his back on me,” she says.

Getting Comfortable in Her Skin

Now, Briana is recovering and feeling well, despite some fatigue. She plans to have reconstructive surgery in March.

In addition to the emotional aspects of dating after cancer, there are physical challenges Briana has had to face. She admits she had some body image issues as she began dating, but those concerns have been quelled thanks to Derrick.

“I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin even with expanders in and not having breasts,” she recalls. “I’ll be very blatant — the first time we were physical, I was nervous about him seeing me, but he made me feel very comfortable.”

The Complexities of Dating After Cancer

Dr. Lynn Bornfriend, a psychiatrist at CTCA in Philadelphia, says dating after cancer can be complicated. Those who have faced cancer often encounter challenges mentally and emotionally.

“People can’t imagine introducing themselves to someone new and saying, ‘By the way, I’ve had cancer,’” says Dr. Bornfriend. “People sometimes lose their sense of self, of attractiveness and what they have to offer.”

Dr. Bornfriend says many patients worry about the possibility of bringing someone into a relationship if the cancer isn’t completely gone or could recur.

“Some of my patients tell me they’ll never date again. They phrase it as a statement: It’s done. It’s over,” she explains.

Many cancer patients also experience physical differences in their bodies and their sexual abilities. Dr. Bornfriend recalls a patient with prostate cancer who was left impotent. He worried about being able to have a relationship since he could no longer perform sexually.

Dr. Bornfriend has some advice for those who may feel unsure about jumping back into dating. “I often ask my patients, ‘What’s important to you?’”

She encourages patients to do things they love, rather than pursuing people. For example, if you meet someone because of a shared interest, there’s already more to the relationship and a greater likelihood of forming a friendship.

“Start dating from a point of health and strength. Fill your life with the things you love and make you happy. That makes it much easier to date,” she offers.

Like in the case of Briana, Dr. Bornfriend recommends meeting a new romantic interest through a mutual connection. “Meeting through a friend rather than on a dating site can be helpful,” explains Dr. Bornfriend.

The most important piece of advice Dr. Bornfriend can offer? “Move slowly. Those who have faced cancer may have more challenges than your average person. It’s important to see how a potential significant other is in good times and bad,” Dr. Bornfriend says.

Looking Toward a Bright Future

Briana is excited for what the future holds. For others in her shoes starting to date after cancer, she agrees with Dr. Bornfriend and advises them to take their time.

“It’s scary,” she says. “Go slow. Be courageous about how you feel — talk about your fears, and don’t bottle them up. The right person will listen and respond appropriately.”