Q. I am 45 and haven’t dated since forever. I have survived cancer. The treatments left me with scars, dentures, sagging skin, etc. With my clothes on, I feel I look pretty good considering all my past difficulties. Still, I am very timid about getting close enough for someone to see me without the clothes. Then there is the emotional scarring. Who wants to commit to a woman who might get sick again? Advice would be welcome.— Joan
A. Dating after a lengthy hiatus can be frightening. Add a recent recovery from a life-threatening illness to the mix, and anyone’s knees would get wobbly.
"Most [breast cancer] recurrences occur in the first three years, and that can be a scary time," notes Marsha T. Oakley, RN, BSN, nursing coordinator at the Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. Herself a breast cancer survivor who works with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery, Oakley has witnessed the range of effects that the disease can have on relationships: "Committed couples who come to the hospital because the wife is ill sometimes wind up separating, but couples on the brink of separating might be brought together by the mutual struggle." In other words, there are no clear-cut rules for coping with a partner’s illness. For survivors starting over post-recovery, Oakley offers this advice: "I encourage single women to live every day to the fullest."
Self-confidence is the key to this strategy, according to Carolyn Gross, author of Beatable and Treatable: Healing Cancer Without Surgery, who advocates being "not just a cancer survivor but a cancer thriver, confident about your health and healing." A positive attitude will naturally convey itself to others.
But what if, in your fragile state, an air of confidence seems impossible to achieve? Gross points out, "Diabetics don’t worry about dating because their blood levels may worsen, just as people who’ve had broken bones aren’t afraid of dating because they might reinjure themselves." The message: Either live with dread, or with an appreciation for the gift of life.
Grateful as you are for that gift, dare to want more — such as reclaiming your femininity. Terri Tassie is a cancer survivor and consultant for Sensuality, Sexuality, Survival (SSS), a program developed by Pure Romance to help women recapture their sensuality and sexuality during and after debilitating breast cancer treatments. Tassie explains, "We have parties in clinics, women’s homes, and hospitals all over the country showcasing products like lingerie, lubricants, massagers, books, and vaginal dilators that help women feel good about themselves again." However you choose to make it happen, it’s important to feel comfortable in your own skin before starting a new relationship.
Are there men out there who would knowingly become involved with a cancer survivor? The unexpected happened for filmmaker Lori Benson while she was immersed in creating her documentary Dear Talula (airing October 9th on Cinemax), which recounts her experience of undergoing breast cancer treatments 14 months after becoming a mother. Married at the time of her initial diagnosis, she was cancer-free and divorced when she interviewed sound mixer Tom Paul to work on the documentary. Lori, now 43, says, "There was an immediate attraction. I thought, ‘Oh wow, this man I’m interested in is about to watch my film and see I have breast cancer.’"
He wasn’t deterred — "I looked healthy," Lori says. However, a month into their relationship she suffered a recurrence. She gave him an out: "I’ll be losing my hair. I understand if you want to leave." His response: to cut her hair in a romantic ritual involving flowers and 50 candles. Lori recalls, "He made something beautiful out of something terrifying."