Starting a new relationship may be the last thing on your mind after a cancer diagnosis, or while you’re going through treatment. But for many people, emotional and physical connection can be a comforting way to cope with the stress and uncertainty that go along with cancer.
Before you start seeing someone new, there are a few things to consider. Here’s what social work counselor Jillian Bissar recommends.
Start with honesty
You may worry about sharing too much too soon with a new partner, but Bissar says it’s important to be open about your cancer diagnosis from the start. “Address the ‘elephant in the room’ early,” she says. “That way there won’t be any surprises.”
Sharing your diagnosis and explaining any physical or emotional challenges you’re experiencing can help establish trust and honesty early in your relationship. “That may help bring you closer together,” says Bissar.
On the other hand, if someone decides they’re not interested based on what you’ve shared with them, that can be a good thing. “It’s better to know what type of person you’re dealing with from the start, rather than waiting to find out after you’ve spent more time together,” Bissar says.
Address emotional barriers
“After a diagnosis, you may be thinking, ‘Why me?’“ Bissar says. “And that’s OK.” These feelings are normal, and talking about them with someone you trust can help. If you’re an MD Anderson patient, reach out to your care team or a social work counselor for help coping with these feelings.
You may find you have less energy to give to a new partner. Bissar suggests picking a time of day when you have more energy, and make a date to be together. Choose activities that bring you both joy, but don’t feel like you need to be more active than you’re comfortable being. “Watching a favorite movie or sharing a hobby together can be very intimate,” Bissar says.
Address your views around sexual intimacy before becoming physically intimate
Once you become emotionally close with a new partner, you may decide to become physically intimate.
Bissar says there are some things to consider before you take your relationship to the next level. “Sex is a normal, healthy part of life. But, it can be easily affected by our past experiences.” Culture, religion, and the way you were raised can all play into your feelings toward physical intimacy. Bissar says, often things that caused pause before diagnosis may become bigger challenges after diagnosis.
“Sex starts outside the bedroom,” Bissar says. It’s important to take time to think about your own views around sexual intimacy and share them with your partner so you each understand the other’s wants, needs, and hesitations.
Some types of cancer or treatment can cause physical changes, such as hair loss, changes in body image or fertility challenges. “Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of what could have been,” Bissar says. Instead of dwelling on the past, treat this time as an opportunity to explore who you are now – and who you want to be.
Dealing with desire during and after cancer treatment
Some patients find lack of desire is their most common sexual side effect. You may feel like you are less desirable than normal, or worry that your partner does not want to be with someone who is sick.
For others, going through cancer treatment can increase sexual desire. “Sex can be very comforting during cancer treatment,” Bissar says. And, these feelings can fluctuate depending on the moment. It’s important to listen to your body, and be open with your partner about how you’re feeling.
“Sometimes a ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no forever,'” Bissar says.
Getting to know your body
Most types of sex are healthy and normal – as long as you’re not hurting yourself or forcing anyone to do anything. Talk with your doctor before engaging in sexual activity to be sure you’re healthy enough for sex.
You and your partner should also establish boundaries about what is and isn’t OK. “Consent is always sexy,” Bissar says.
Even if cancer has made traditional intercourse difficult for you, there are still ways to be intimate with your partner. She encourages you to explore your own body to see what feels good, without worrying about being embarrassed or feeling pressure to perform with a partner. “Only you know what feels good to you,” Bissar says. Once you know more, show your partner how you would like to be touched.
Be sure to talk to your doctor, nurse, social work counselor, therapist or chaplain if you feel confused. They can listen to your concerns and offer suggestions.