I’ve been mentoring some young adult cancer survivors in their 20s. Among their questions is how to navigate the dating world as a cancer survivor.
My answer: It’s not any different than dating as a non-cancer survivor. Yes we had a health issue and some side effects may remain. But I compare it to dating someone with kids, diabetes, a sore knee, back issues. Basically, we all have issues, stories, a past.
Cancer itself can cause anxiety, fear, concern, self-consciousness and more. I get it. I’ve felt it all. Dating can cause the same emotions. Am I right? But we don’t need to have these because of a cancer diagnosis.
I am by no means an expert on dating! I suppose I’ve done my fair share of dating since my 20s. Since I was diagnosed with my first cancer at 21, I have pretty much dated as a cancer survivor. I’ve been married and through a divorce so dating again. I’ve met guys on my own, been set up through family and friends (and even some coworkers), tried online dating. While I consider myself open to meeting new people, I admit I know the qualities and energies that I’m seeking in a match at this point in my life. But, since these women asked, I thought I would share some advice that I both give and have received – for cancer survivors and anyone with a past (yep, pretty much everyone):
Share your story when you’re ready. It kind of depends how I meet people as to when I share that I’m a survivor. I probably share earlier than most because of my commitment to helping others through sharing my cancer story. And my roles in advocacy keep me busy, which leads to someone asking why I’m so committed to fighting cancer. I also have a titanium rod in place of my femur/knee so sometimes I have to modify or decline participation in something, which of course leads to questions. Even with all that, I’ve gone on two or three dates without ever sharing my cancer story because it simply didn’t come up and we had much more fun stuff to talk about. I once dated a guy for about two months before he shared that he is diabetic, which didn’t affect my feelings for him.
You are not defined by your cancer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I am so much more than a cancer survivor. I have a good career, a wide variety of interests and hobbies, lots of things that keep me busy and many experiences outside of cancer that molded me into who I am. However, cancer also played a major role in my life choices. The disease touches anyone. My date could be a survivor too, or be diagnosed down the road. So just be yourself.
Clear the pressure. Don’t focus on the heavy – a date’s reaction to your cancer story, the next date, the future. As I mentioned above, be yourself. Don’t set expectations. Yes, you may ultimately be looking for a long term relationship/marriage, and that’s cool to know it in the deep trenches of your brain, but try to stay focused on the present. The first 10 minutes, getting through dinner, the first kiss. I’ve found the more I stay focused on my awareness of right in the moment, the more I’m myself and have fun. And, really, that’s the point of dating for me. Having fun, meeting new people and enjoying the moments of life.
Remember everyone has a story and a wee bit of baggage, including your date. You hope the person has a cute little carry on backpack rather than a huge overstuffed suitcase. We all have history, it’s part of being alive and experiencing life. I’m a fan of learning from and appreciating the past, and then moving forward to experience the present.
The right person will come at the right time. My grandma once told me that sometimes we have to kiss a lot of frogs to find our prince. Amen to that. I know my right partner is out there. Heck I could have met him and the timing wasn’t quite right and our paths will cross again. I trust that the guy who chooses me and returns the feelings is on his way. I’m not going to settle when I know the right relationship will happen when it’s meant to be.
Be open to the unexpected. Yes we all have a type, even if we deny it. But there may come a time that you meet someone who doesn’t ‘fit’ that box or make the typical list. Maybe he’s older, she has dark hair instead of blonde, he isn’t geographically desirable (hello, cars and planes), just got out of a relationship, has a cat, whatever. The point is that if we set our expectations so tight and require a bunch of check boxes, we may miss the right person walking by. Simply be open and you never know who may catch your heart!
The biggest advice I shared was don’t settle. Don’t be in a relationship with someone (or stay in one) because society, family, friends, anyone tells you that you should be. I got married in my 30s, after most of my friends, because I didn’t see myself long term with most of the guys I dated. I loved my (ex) husband when we got married, but in the end we weren’t a good fit for each other. I divorced due to many reasons (that I won’t go into), including that we realized we would not be long term happy and content with each other. We could have stayed together, said we were happy while we led separate lives (and many people said we should), but I’m proud we made the decision to choose real happiness, as individuals. While I’m not advocating for divorce (we did a lot of marriage counseling to try to make it work, but sometimes it just doesn’t and that’s ok), I am advocating to choose happiness and embrace that your path to love may not lead where you expected. Life is too short for any less. And you don’t need to be a cancer survivor to embrace that.