Dating With Breast Cancer

After hearing "You have breast cancer," putting everything on hold to seek treatment seems obvious. But what about your dating life? Here, survivors share their tales of dating after diagnosis.

By Diane Mapes

t's the diagnosis every woman dreads, thanks primarily to the fact that the treatment — mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation — can be every bit as bad as the disease itself. But what do you do if you're single and diagnosed with breast cancer? Hide under a rock until your post-chemo hair grows back? Enter a nunnery instead of letting a man know your breasts may look a little different — or may not be there at all?

Feeling like "damaged goods"
"One of the thoughts that I had — especially after the surgery — was, 'Who's going to want to date me now that I have this thing?'" says Dena T., a 44-year-old freelance writer from Austin, TX who went
Yvette soon found out that some men couldn't handle the truth.
through a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2006. "It's hard enough to meet quality people who are interested in you and that you can connect with… and now to throw this monkey wrench into the mix!"

Janet S., a 60-year-old educator from Boston who went through two lumpectomies, chemo and radiation for her breast cancer in 1998, was similarly ambivalent about dating after her diagnosis. "I felt like I really was damaged goods," she says. "I was not thinking in terms of dating at all, but then a friend called and said, 'I want to fix you up with a friend of mine.' I asked her, 'Does he know?' And she said, 'Yeah, he knows, but he doesn't care.'"

Despite her jitters (she'd started chemo and had lost all of her hair at that point), Janet got a wig and went out on her first date in years. And much to her surprise, she had a great time. "In the middle of the date, I told him: 'you know, this is a wig,' and he says, 'oh yeah, very cute,'" Janet recalls. "He barely paid attention to the whole thing. I ended up going out with him about four to five months. It wasn't a great relationship, but there were a lot of good things about it."

According to Gina Maisano, author of Intimacy After Breast Cancer, attitude is everything when it comes to dating — especially for women dealing with breast cancer. "You can look at yourself as damaged goods or you can look at yourself as the strongest superhero on the planet," Masaino says. "Surviving the words 'You have cancer' is enough to win a medal of honor. But to come out standing strong and moving forward with your life instead of living in a closet, that's a powerful woman — and you should be proud of yourself."

How to break the news to dates
But even if you do feel like a superhero, there are always questions — especially with regard to when, exactly, you should spill the beans to others about the whole cancer thing. Yvette M., a 40-year-old advertising executive from Sydney who had a double mastectomy and went through chemo in 2010, says she tried out different strategies for telling her dates about her diagnosis. "Honesty is my middle name, so it's not information I kept under my hat — or wig — for too long," she says. Yvette soon found out that some men couldn't handle the truth, though — at least, not right away.

"I had a prospective online date email me, asking if I'd like to meet for lunch. And I said 'yes,' but then went on to explain the chemo to him," she recalls. "He didn't write back." While other dates responded more positively when they were told up front about Yvette's diagnosis, she decided to stop sharing her cancer news until it was obvious there was some mutual chemistry going on.

Maisano, a two-time breast cancer survivor, says that's the perfect way to handle things. "There's no need to put in your online profile that you're a breast cancer survivor, just like there's no need to say you've had the measles in sixth grade," she says. "Instead, talk on the phone, have coffee, find out that he's normal… and then make plans for another date. Feel him out. If you think he's someone you might want to get to know more, then you tell him — and only then." Maisano also recommends not making a big deal of it — even if it's a big deal to you. "You don't have to give
I felt like a lot of my feminine identity was tied up in having hair.
him your entire medical history or talk about all the gruesome surgeries and side effects," she says. "You want him to see you as a woman, not a cancer patient."

Coping with cancer's battle scars
Equally daunting is the idea of sharing your breast cancer battle scars — such as baldness, reconstruction scars, or missing or misshapen breasts — with a new romantic partner. "For me, it was more about not having [my] hair," says Janet, who not only continued to date during her treatment and recovery, but married three years ago. "I felt like a lot of my feminine identity was tied up in having hair. But when I took my wig off in front of the man I dated during chemo, he said, 'Whoa, you look cute.' He was very affirming, and it made me feel great about myself."

Others have had less uplifting experiences.

Maisano says that the first time she was intimate with someone after her reconstruction was completed, things didn't go well at all. "I had anxiety and apprehension, and he didn't do anything to ease that," she says. "When he saw me for the first time, the look on his face was devastating." Kara H., a 48-year-old flight attendant from Longview, WA who had a mastectomy, chemo, radiation and eventual reconstruction, says that she, too, was intimate with someone who was less than supportive.

"I ended up dating a guy I knew from college, but when we slept together, I didn't take my shirt off," she says. "He knew I had cancer — we'd talked about it and the reconstruction — but he didn't go there. He didn't try to explore my scars or my boobs." Although it might be difficult, Maisano advises women not to take bad experiences to heart. "Men can be jerks, and there are guys out there who will make you feel bad even if you haven't had cancer," she says. "Don't let one bad experience ruin your confidence or the way you feel about yourself."

Understanding survivor appeal
Kara persevered with dating, and a year and a half ago, she met a 50-year-old sales director from Portland, OR, whose attitude was completely different. "Jeff's really empathetic and sensitive, and he actually liked that I'd beaten breast cancer," Kara says. "I think he roots for underdogs."

Maisano says that some men definitely take their cues from the women they're seeing, so it's important to be strong and confident — regardless of whether you've survived breast cancer or not. "If you're uptight and worried and negative and project all of those things about your cancer experience, they're naturally going to pick that up," she says. "If you project that you love yourself, you're proud of yourself and you consider yourself a warrior and [believe that] you're amazing, that's how he'll view you, too."

Jeff H., who saw Kara's cancer survivor status as a plus, agrees. "I was incredibly impressed with the fight that it took and the time it took," he says. "The hair loss, the weight gain — the whole package that comes with the disease and the treatment, which is hell in itself. It didn't defeat her at all, and that made her more attractive to me. She is a fighter and she wasn't going to let life stop her. That really appealed to me."

Diane Mapes is a freelance writer based in Seattle and the author of How to Date in a Post-Dating World. She can be reached via her Web site,
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