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Family and Relationships FAQs

Updated April 1, 2010

I’m single and worried about dating. When do I tell someone I’m dating that I was treated for cancer? And when do I talk about the fact that I might not be able to have biological children?

My children know that I’ve been going to the doctor a lot lately, but I haven’t told them that I have breast cancer. I don’t want to scare them. What do I tell them, and when?

My friends and I used to be really close. Since my diagnosis, some of them seem to have disappeared. I feel angry and hurt. Am I being overly sensitive?

Q: I’m single and worried about dating. When do I tell someone I’m dating that I was treated for cancer? And when do I talk about the fact that I might not be able to have biological children?

A: Think about your social life before cancer. Were your first dates filled with weighty personal disclosures? More likely, you spent the time enjoying a movie or meal and deciding whether the person was someone you wanted to see again.

Your cancer experience is an important thing to share with someone you’re dating, but only after you’ve developed a level of comfort with that person. There’s no reason to explain your situation to dates you may have no interest in seeing again.

Even if you are interested, finding the right time takes a bit of balance. If you talk about cancer right away, that can become the only thing the person thinks of about you. If you wait until a bond has been formed between the two of you—and then tell—the other person may feel shut out from your real life and feelings.

Have the conversation when you both are relaxed and there’s plenty of time. You don’t have to discuss your fertility prospects until (and if) the relationship develops further. You may want to talk about your breast cancer sooner if you’re still in treatment or if you’re ready for sexual activity but want to feel assured that your new partner will accept your changed body. (But don’t wait until you’re headed into the bedroom for your first sexual encounter together!)

Some women begin new relationships online and chat for several days, weeks or longer before meeting face-to-face with the person for a date. If you develop a sufficient level of comfort from an online interaction, you may decide to discuss your cancer experience in electronic communications before the first date even happens.

For more help, read or listen to "Single and Ready to Mingle: Dating after Breast Cancer," from the Annual Conference for Young Women.

Q: My children know that I’ve been going to the doctor a lot lately, but I haven’t told them that I have breast cancer. I don’t want to scare them. What do I tell them, and when?

A: Even very young children will know that something is wrong, just from the behavior of the adults around them. If treatment changes your appearance, energy level or appetite—any of which is likely at least for some time—children will become even more worried. When they don’t have information, they may fill in the blanks with something far worse than what is going on. It’s also important for them to know that they did nothing to cause your cancer.

Talk with kids in language that’s age-appropriate—very simple for toddlers and pre-schoolers, a bit more factual for elementary-age children, more detail for adolescents and teens. Reassure them that you are getting the best treatment and that they will be cared for even when you might be sick. In day-to-day conversation, gently explore what their concerns may be. Don’t jump in and over-explain in great detail: if you wait to listen, you may be surprised by the simplicity of what they’re worried about.

Remember that your children will ask questions now and as they get older. After treatment, remain positive, but don’t say that the cancer is gone and will never come back. The message to convey is that you are taking the best care of yourself, seeing the doctor regularly and are hopeful.

Here are several resources for helping children understand cancer in the family:

Q: My friends and I used to be really close. Since my diagnosis, some of them seem to have disappeared. I feel angry and hurt. Am I being overly sensitive?

A: Friends who have been with you for good times may have a variety of reactions to the tough reality of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Some may not know how to respond or what to do. If they offer help, be specific about what they can do—whether it’s calling to chat, running an errand for you or providing companionship on a medical visit.

Others may pull away because they are fearful of your being ill or because breast cancer is something they worry about for themselves. With friends you’d like to keep but who have become remote, try reaching out to them in a setting where your diagnosis and treatment aren’t the focal point of conversation. This may help both of you reconnect.

There are also friends who will pull away and not return. They may do so because of their own fears or, quite simply, because they are too self-centered to be supportive to anyone—even a close friend—who is going through difficult times.

Although this, understandably, may add to your feelings of loss, focus instead on the caring people who remain strong allies or who come into your life as a result of your diagnosis. The old saying, "A door closes and a window opens" is very true here. People you’ve lost touch with, people you’ve never known before, casual acquaintances and longtime friends all may step forward and help create a new network to support you going forward.

All FAQs reviewed by Clifford A. Hudis, MD

Denver, CO  ·  September 13, 2014

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