Postcancer Relationships


Bob Riter
Bob Riter

It can be a challenge to begin a new relationship after having had cancer. We usually think about this from the perspective of the person with cancer, but what about the other partner in a new relationship—the one without cancer?

One woman put it this way: “I feel like cancer is a member of his family. I want to understand and help, but he never wants to talk about it.”

This reminds me of those old movies in which the newcomer to the household realizes there’s a mysterious person living in the attic. This person is never mentioned even though his footsteps are heard from time to time. The newcomer is concerned and curious, but it’s clear that questions aren’t welcomed.

That’s not a comfortable situation in the movies or in real life.

I encourage the partner with cancer to be as open as possible. Some people want to compartmentalize their cancer experience and not think about it again. That doesn’t work well if there’s a new partner. Like it or not, cancer is part of your life, so share it.

And I encourage the partner without cancer to ask questions. If your partner doesn’t want to answer those questions just then, try to schedule a time to sit down and talk it through.

Talking about cancer is scary, but not talking about cancer is even scarier.

New relationships after cancer can be challenging even with good communication.

When a person goes through cancer with a partner, it’s generally a shared experience. Together, they learn the language of cancer and mutually understand what’s been done and what the future holds. If the relationship develops after the cancer diagnosis and treatment, the partner without cancer needs to catch up.

For some new couples, the cancer is mostly a distant memory that has little impact. Perhaps a scar and an annual checkup are the only reminders.

For other couples, cancer is a day-to-day presence. Some cancers require ongoing treatment. Even cancers that are presumably cured can have significant aftereffects: changes in body image, colostomies, sexual difficulties, infertility, fatigue. These are real challenges to a new relationship.

I love meeting couples who fall in love in spite of these challenges. If you can work together through cancer, you can work together through anything.

And having had cancer is not all bad. People who have been through serious illness don’t take much for granted.

Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.