In Sickness And In Health

A look at the dating ground rules for singles who have a serious illness.

By Bob Strauss

fter she was widowed at the age of 25, Cathy Bueti thought she’d experienced the worst life had to offer — until, six years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “For some reason,” she says, “I continued to date while facing a mastectomy, chemo and loss of my hair — I think to try to hold onto what had been a normal part of my young, single life.” Most of the men she met bowed out after she
How, exactly, do you broach the topic of serious illness…
revealed the truth, and one — “the guy who patted himself on the back for dating the poor girl with cancer” — didn’t work out. Finally, she met someone who accepted her for who she was and all she’d been through, and they’ve been happily married for four years.

Bueti’s story has a happy ending (she provides more details in her book, Breastless in the City), but it raises a tricky issue: How, exactly, do you broach the topic of serious illness with someone you’ve known for all of two or three dates? We asked a few people, and here’s what they had to say.

Be honest…
“Early in the relationship, let your dating partner know the name of your illness, its symptoms, and how it may limit your activities,” advises psychologist and sex therapist Dr. Stephanie Buehler. “For example, if you have fibromyalgia, you may need to rest in the middle of the day, and if you have rheumatoid arthritis you may be restricted from climbing too many stairs. If you belong to an organization that serves people with your particular illness, give your dating partner the Web site if he or she wants to know more.”

…but don’t be honest with the wrong person.
“You should carefully consider to whom you entrust private medical information,” says Dr. Vicki Rackner, a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living series. “Once you’ve told someone your diagnosis, it’s out — and what would happen if an employer heard about your genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease?” You really can never plan for how information will travel. If you do decide to share, Dr. Rackner says, “frame the discussion with, ‘I like you and I see there’s promise for something between us. I would like to tell you something in confidence, trusting that the
Remember, even healthy singles get shot down most of the time.
information will stay just with you, even if things don’t work out between us. Can you make that commitment?’”

Don’t whine.
“Dating is an opportunity to do something social and get away from your problems,” says Dr. Buehler. “If you’ve had a major setback or something significant has happened, like needing surgery, it’s normal to want to talk about it right away, but consider the timing. Someone who’s dating you doesn’t want to hear medical details over a juicy steak dinner. Ask the person to set aside some time so the two of you can talk things over in a more appropriate setting.”

Be open about your sexual concerns.
“Many illnesses and medications do cause sexual problems,” Dr. Buehler continues. “If you’re just getting into the dating scene and have a medical condition, talk to your physician or nurse about any sexual concerns you have, and if you’re considering becoming sexually active with your partner, discuss your needs with that person in advance. You need to know whether your partner is going to be supportive, and that being honest beforehand isn’t likely to change his or her attitude.”

Expect your share of rejection...
Remember, even healthy singles get shot down most of the time. Some people are not up for the challenge of dating someone with health issues. Those people aren’t the people you should be dating. So remember that dating is a numbers game for all of us, and get out there and keep looking.

…but don’t give up hope.
“I’d been dating a great guy for just two months when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma,” says Astera from San Francisco. “I moved from southern California to northern California to live with my family while I got treatment, but he stuck by me through the hair loss, the vomiting and the mood swings. Now, we’ve been married for almost three years. If you can find a man who will love you when you’re bald, you know you’ve got a keeper!”

Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on, the online information network owned by the New York Times.
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