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Living with Breast Cancer: Your Relationships

As you go through breast cancer treatment your sense of identity and sexuality may change, which can affect your relationship with your partner on many different levels.

This page provides information for people in relationships as well as those who may be considering dating or starting a new relationship. It describes how living with breast cancer may affect communication between partners, and addresses some of the common worries people face when beginning a new relationship after breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. If you are the partner of someone diagnosed with breast cancer, this page also describes how you can support yourself and your partner during their diagnosis and treatment.

Communicating with your partner

If you are in a relationship, your partner is going through a difficult process with you. Try to communicate with each other about the emotions you are experiencing. These may include your thoughts and feelings about living with breast cancer. They may also include concerns you have about your relationship, due to your breast cancer, such as the following:

  • Fear that your partner will not find you attractive

  • Concern that you do not have enough time and energy to give your partner because of your illness

  • Guilt about the demands that your illness might impose on your partner

  • Fear that your partner may leave you (even if this seems unfounded)

It is normal to feel any or all of these things. You may be tempted to keep your emotions to yourself because you are embarrassed or afraid or to protect your partner from upset. This can often lead to more distress for both of you. Open communication with your partner can help you both work through these feelings and maintain your connection to each other.

Information for partners

If you are the partner of someone with breast cancer, you may be their main source of support. During a time of illness, this can be very stressful and cause you a lot of anxiety. Some of the challenges that you may face include the following:

  • Concern about your partner's health, including fear of your partner dying

  • Uncertainty about what can or cannot be said, or being uncomfortable discussing cancer openly with your partner

  • Feeling useless – that you want to help and don’t know how

  • The need to make practical adjustments, such as assuming new responsibilities at home and, if you have a family, communicating with and caring for your children

  • If you are a woman, you may be concerned about your own risk for developing the disease

  • Worry over finances

  • Feeling overly protective of your partner

Although you may want to focus all of your attention on your partner, it is important to listen to your own emotions and needs during this time.  There is information and support groups for partners and caregivers of people diagnosed with breast cancer. You may find it helpful to connect with and talk to others who are supporting a partner, friend, or family member with breast cancer.

Supporting a partner with breast cancer

Here are some things you can do as the partner of someone with breast cancer:

  • Listen to your partner in a supportive way, without judging them

  • Resist the need to ‘have the answers’ – simply listening, being present, and showing you care goes a very long way

  • Become informed about breast cancer so that you can discuss it with your partner and support her/his decisions about treatment

  • Understand that breast cancer is affecting your partner emotionally as well as physically

  • Listen to your own emotions and needs. Seek social or emotional support for yourself if you need to

Good communication can go a long way to helping partners get through breast cancer treatment. It may help to speak to someone, either alone or together, if you are having difficulty dealing with issues in your relationship. Your health care team can refer you to social workers, psychologists, therapists, counsellors and other support services.

Dating and starting new relationships

If you are single, you may feel differently about dating or starting new relationships than you did before you had breast cancer.

For some people, going through breast cancer and its treatment leads to personal growth, a stronger sense of self or more self-awareness. You may have a clearer idea of what you want from your life and your relationships.

For others, dating or starting new relationships may feel more difficult. Some of the reasons may be the following:

  • Concerns about when and how to tell someone you are dating about your cancer

  • Uncertainty about how someone you are dating will react to your having cancer

  • Worry that having cancer will make it more difficult to find people to date

  • Changes to your appearance due to cancer or cancer treatment, which may affect your feelings about being attractive or sexual

  • Physical changes and side effects resulting from breast cancer treatment such as vaginal dryness or discomfort in other parts of the body, which may affect sexual desire and your physical and emotional abilities to be sexual

  • Fear of cancer recurringRecurrence:
    Cancer that returns after treatment.
    and wondering how this new person in your life would react

Finding the support you need

If you want to start dating but are finding it difficult, you may find it helpful to do the following:

  • Take small steps, such as volunteering or taking a class where you will meet new people in a relaxed setting

  • Talk to a counsellor about your concerns. Your health care team can refer you to social workers, psychologists, therapists, counsellors and other support services

  • Find a breast cancer support group where you can talk about dating with others

  • Remember that you are in control of when and how you tell someone you are dating about your breast cancer

  • Think about or even practice what you want to say when you are ready to tell someone you are dating about your breast cancer, to help you become more comfortable saying it

 

Sources:

Breastcancer.org. Single Women: Finding Your Way. Accessed June 11, 2014

Breastcancer.org. You and Your Partner. Accessed June 11, 2014

Lesbians and Breast Cancer Project Team (2004). Coming Out About Lesbians and Cancer. Toronto: Ontario Breast Cancer Community Research Initiative. Accessed January 15, 2014