February 6, 2019

Dating in the face of cancer

Like many single 27-year-olds, Megan Parkin has an idea of who she does and does not want to date.

“I used to be looking for the sexiest man alive, even if they didn’t have the qualities I was looking for. I dated a lot of the wrong guys,” Parkin says. “Now, I’d say it’s the complete opposite. I still want to have a handsome partner but I want to make sure they are strong enough in our relationship.”

Chalk it up to good old-fashioned growing up, but Parkin’s change in attitude also has a lot to do with her health: in June 2017, she found a lump in her breast. Within weeks, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy. After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, she later learned she tested positive for the BRCA2 gene that predisposes women to early-onset breast cancer.

Nearly two years later, Parkin considers herself cancer free (she likes to think of herself as being cancer free the day of her surgery) and she is living life as fully as possible – including having hopes of finding a partner and father to the children she wants to have. But being a cancer survivor is very much a part of who she is now, and she knows it affects how she forms new relationships.

“In my old life, I was crazy and happy, like I couldn’t have any gaps in time where I wasn’t doing something. Now, crazy to me is being calm. I’m calm and I’m happy,” Parkin says. “I can’t take back the fact that I had cancer – I wouldn’t want to, because I wouldn’t be me without it – and if I’m really finding a man with the qualities that I want now, he’ll be receptive and supportive of that fact.”

How do I explain about my cancer?

According to Kirsten Norslien, program director at Gilda’s Club Madison, dating as a cancer survivor is not entirely different from dating in general: the best new relationships start when partners are happy with themselves. Still, there are unique concerns for survivors related to dating, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

“I think for survivors, the question comes up a lot: when do I tell this person that I’m a survivor? How do I explain my scars? How can I handle my fatigue without feeling like a party pooper?” Norslien says. “And there’s often the assumption that once you’re done with treatment you should be fine, but that’s not true. Many survivors are concerned about recurrence, and the lingering impact of the disease and treatment can be ongoing for a long time.”

And that is not to even mention concerns with sexual health and fertility.

“Sexuality, your ability to be intimate, all can be impacted by treatment, and having that conversation is hard even in the best of circumstances,” Norslien says. “Fertility can also be impacted by treatment, and then you have to work with those effects. And again, when do you bring that up?”

Part of Norslien’s role at Gilda’s Club is to facilitate support groups and social activities for patients and survivors. People in the support groups tend to have mixed diagnoses and mixed ages, which she says works surprisingly well to help people form intergenerational friendships and seek advice from survivors in different stages in their lives.

“At our support groups, discussions of dating and intimate relationships are absolutely allowed!” Norslien says. “As are discussions about any relationships. I think sometimes people get so focused on what is going on with their cancer that they sometimes forget to focus on how cancer has impacted all their relationships.”

For her part, Parkin could not agree more. Whether it is looking for a new romantic partner or navigating old friendships, she learned that cancer can impact any relationship.

“I feel like cancer will really make or break relationships, between you and a man, you and friends, you and family, it doesn’t matter,” Parkin says. “I am very protective of who I let around me now, because I am very focused on being happy, healthy and peaceful.”

Resources for cancer survivors

Or contact Gilda’s to find a support group or ask for recommendations of online patient and survivor support communities.