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Relationships and Breast Cancer

Whether dating or committed, honesty is the best policy

By Betsy Lee-Frye

Updated March 10, 2009

(LifeWire) - Whether it be a new love blooming or a long-time partnership, breast cancer can affect every aspect of an intimate relationship. For single women with breast cancer, concerns may arise about meeting someone and when to share the diagnosis. Those in a long-term relationship might worry about communication and how life as a couple will hold up under the stress.

Husband and Wife
Husband and Wife
Photo ©
Jonathan Powell
Dating With Breast Cancer

A breast cancer diagnosis doesn't have to mean sitting on the sidelines. In fact, it's healthy to stay socially active, as long as you get plenty of rest. Women should simply have a plan about sharing their diagnosis and handling the ups and downs of dating while undergoing treatment.

First, experts recommend becoming comfortable in other social situations before going on that first date. By taking a new class or joining a new club, women can practice telling strangers about their diagnosis.

Spend some time thinking about how and when to tell someone. For some women, talking about the diagnosis on the first date might be imperative. Others may choose to wait until a sense of companionship has developed. But don't wait too long. Waiting until the relationship has become sexually intimate can create feelings of distrust and tension.

As for the actual words to use, there is no right answer. It may help to practice before the actual disclosure. Just remember to be honest about everything from the treatment regimen to your emotions. Failing to tell the truth about an upcoming lumpectomy or mastectomy, for example, can lead to mistrust and hard feelings down the line.

Does the whole thing seem exhausting?

Try a different route. Joining a local cancer support group or using a dating service for people with cancer can be a great way to meet people with similar experiences. National dating services include CancerMatch.com and Prescription4Love.com.

Whatever the choice, your treatment and sense of self-worth should come first. Keep in mind that not every date turned into true love before cancer. If dating is dragging you down instead of lifting your spirits now, it's just not worth it.

In a Long-Term Relationship

Tackling the diagnosis with a significant other has its own challenges.

For women in a relationship, communication is key. According to a study of 147 patients and 127 partners published in Psycho-Oncology, "mutual constructive communication was associated with less distress and more relationship satisfaction for both patient and partner."

A good place to begin is by discussing treatment decisions and talking openly about fears. Don't make assumptions about the other person's feelings. It may even help for each person to independently journal thoughts and feelings and then share the entries with one other.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, supporting each other can also include accepting help from friends and relatives when it is offered, allowing each other to have alone time, and making sure both people eat well and get enough rest.

The good news is that facing a serious disease together strengthens many relationships. One Canadian study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that more than 40% of couples surveyed said that breast cancer brought them closer. And the divorce rate among couples who've received a breast cancer diagnosis seems to be no higher than in the general population.

Sex and Intimacy

Regardless of whether a woman undergoes chemotherapy, radiation or only surgical procedures to treat her breast cancer, sexual intimacy can be a source of newfound worry.

According to one study of about 550 women, ages 22 to 50, about half reported self-esteem and body image issues. The women participating in this study made the choice to undergo chemotherapy, mastectomy or both.

The same study reported that among the sexually active women, 28% say they have a "definite or serious" sexual problem. These problems range from the concrete, such as vaginal dryness, to the more abstract, such as difficulty getting a partner to understand their feelings. These side effects, previously taboo, can and should be discussed openly with your doctor. More treatment centers are even offering programs that focus on sexual side effects.

The Cancer Survivor's Network, an American Cancer Society support program, advises women with breast cancer to open up dialogue with their significant other as soon as possible after diagnosis. Couples and those in new relationships are encouraged to discuss the intimacy challenges cancer treatment can bring, how these challenges may impact the relationship, and what they can do to improve intimacy.

Keep in mind that treatment may affect a patient's desire for intercourse, but not their need for physical closeness. Sometimes, there's no substitute for a hug, a kiss or gentle hand-holding.

Dorval, Michael, Stéphane Guay, Myrto Mondor, Benoît Mâsse, Maurice Falardeau, André Robidoux, Luc Deschênes and Elizabeth Maunsell. "Couples Who Get Closer After Breast Cancer: Frequency and Predictors in a Prospective Investigation." Journal of Clinical Oncology 23. 15. 20 May 2005. 3588-3596. 8 May 2008.

"Facing Forward Series: Life After Cancer Treatment." The Cancer Survivors Network . 2007. American Cancer Society. 8 May 2008.

Fobair, Pat, Susan L. Stewart, Subo Chang, Carol D'Onofrio, Priscilla J. Banks and Joan R. Bloom. "Body Image and Sexual Problems in Young Women with Breast Cancer." Psycho-Oncology 15. 7. 15 Nov. 2005. 579 - 594. 6 May 2008. (subscription)

Manne , S.L., J.S. Ostroff, T.R. Norton, K. Fox, L. Goldstein and G. Grana. "Cancer-Related Relationship Communication in Couples Coping with Early Stage Breast Cancer." Psycho-Oncology 15. 3 Mar. 2006. 234-47. 8 May 2008. (subscription)

"My Wife Has Cancer - Now What?" ClevelandClinic.org. 1 Apr. 2003. Cleveland Clinic. 8 May 2008.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Betsy Lee-Frye is an independent journalist living in Kansas City, Mo. She is a fellow with the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications and Kansas City Magazine.

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