Information for Survivors – Relationships
Dating and Marriage
Even without the complications of cancer, the period of adolescence to young adulthood is a tough time. During this period, people often struggle with identity and self-esteem, worry more about how they compare to others, and experience increased sexual interest and puberty. As a result, teens and young adults tend to focus more on appearance and body image.
That’s why this time period is especially difficult when cancer treatments have changed the way you look. Long-term physical effects, such as weight loss or gain, surgical scars or any change in your physical appearance, may affect your overall self-esteem and make you uncomfortable in a sexual relationship.
It’s important to strengthen your self-esteem so that you can form healthy, productive dating relationships. Below are some ideas for creating positive self-esteem:
- Exercise. Not only is exercise part of a healthy lifestyle, it releases chemical endorphins in the body, which lead to feelings of well-being
- Create your own space. Decorate your room, a box or a journal where you can keep your own belongings, music, books, movies or writings
- Don’t compare yourself to others
- Find your skills. Whether it is writing, dancing, singing, video games, sports or academic interests, find what it is that makes you happy and do it
- Say positive things about yourself. It may sound corny, but talking to yourself in a positive way helps boost your self-esteem
- Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
- Make a list of your past successes
- List your future goals and plan on how you will achieve them
- Learn to laugh at yourself. A good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself increase your enjoyment of life
You may experience sexual concerns caused by fertility issues and health worries. Your ability to perform sexually might also be affected by depression, guilt, fear or fatigue. Sometimes, low self-esteem leads people to engage in sex less frequently, feel more anxious about sex, have difficulty becoming aroused or deriving pleasure from sex, avoid sex or engage in it too freely or dangerously.
The key to overcoming confusion about sexuality is to be honest—with your partner and your doctor. Discussing reproductive issues and sexual concerns can be embarrassing and scary. However, the benefits of an open discussion far outweigh keeping these concerns unspoken.
Discussing these issues and working to feel good about yourself will help you have healthier and happier relationships.
You may also benefit from seeking professional counseling. It’s important to be well informed about possible sexual and/or fertility problems and to be willing to talk about these concerns with your partner, your doctor and, if needed, a counselor. If you need additional help related to sexual issues, you can obtain referrals to a licensed sex therapist or counselor through the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
Studies show that the marriage rate is generally the same for cancer survivors as for the general public. Working on intimacy can be difficult, but openly addressing these issues and developing positive self-esteem will help you strengthen your relationship.
A cancer diagnosis often causes roles and responsibilities within a family to change. Your increased emotional and physical needs during treatment may make you temporarily more dependent on your parents. Once treatment ends, you may expect your parents to resume their old roles as you return to a more independent lifestyle.
Your parents, on the other hand, may have ongoing worries that make them uncomfortable with your need for independence. This is normal. Talk openly with your parents about their concerns and the impact on you. Some of their fears may seem irrational, but remember that your illness has also profoundly affected them. Your self-esteem, confidence and good decisions may ease their worries.
Cancer may have a completely different meaning to you than to your parents. At the end of treatment, both parties may feel anxiety in separating from your medical team, but it may be even more difficult for your parents than for you. You may need to remind them that although cancer is still a part of your life, it’s important for you to return to, or develop your own support system outside the cancer community. This doesn’t mean you are breaking all ties, but rather that you are choosing the role cancer will play in your future.
Many survivors say they sometimes feel “different” from their peers. Some feel more mature or more empathetic and understanding of others. Others feel that their concerns, interests or values have changed. As a result, you may feel disconnected from your peers.
On the other hand, surviving cancer has given you many strengths, including self-confidence and a more open approach to life. Your peers may see you as a role model and may find a new perspective for their own concerns.
For many survivors, cancer and its treatment lead to the loss of some friendships and changes in others. This can happen for any number of reasons. Friends may have moved on to other friendships while you were undergoing treatment, or they may be uncomfortable with you because they don’t understand cancer. Your own feelings of rejection and vulnerability may have played a part. You may even have experienced some teasing.
Sharing your history will allow your friends to ask questions and discuss any concerns. If friends or partners have a problem with your past cancer history, they may need more information or they may be reacting to concerns from their own past. It’s difficult and disappointing to be rejected by someone frightened by the fact that you are a cancer survivor. However, it’s better to find this out early in a relationship rather than later. Educating your friends about cancer is the best way to overcome any discomfort they may feel about your health. Be sure to stress the fact that cancer is not contagious.
Meeting new people can also be difficult for survivors. But try not to let fear of rejection prevent you from seeking new relationships or continuing to build and maintain existing ones. If you feel anxious, awkward or shy, set small goals for yourself to make the task of meeting people easier. Here are some suggestions:
- Learn to smile or compliment one person each day. As you feel more comfortable, increase communications.
- Join a community interest group, club, support group, recreational activity or sports team.
- Consider volunteering.
- Take a class that interests you.
- Build on relationships you already have. Friends can offer great support and also lead you to new people.
Check out our Guide for Friends of Teens with Cancer for additional information on how having cancer can affect friendships.