Sexuality for the Man With Cancer

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The single man and cancer

Getting through cancer treatment can be really tough for a man who’s not in a long-term relationship. You may not have a friend or family member who can be there for you like a partner could be. You may also worry how a current or future partner will react when they learn you’ve had cancer. Many men feel nervous or anxious about dating after going through cancer treatments and having to use medicines to help with erections. This anxiety can cause them to avoid dating. This avoidance then leads to more anxiety, and this becomes a vicious cycle that leads to more avoidance. Many single men who start to date after cancer treatment have found their romantic partners to be very understanding about their cancer and sexual situation. These single men who started to date have been successful, and many have started lasting romantic relationships.

Some of the scars left by cancer are public. These include the lost hair during chemo, a lost limb, or disfigured face. Others can’t be seen by a casual onlooker. For example, there’s no way to know that a man walking down the street has a colostomy or only one testicle. These private scars can be just as painful, though, since the few people who do see them are often the ones whose acceptance matters most.

Perhaps the most private scar left by cancer is the damage done to how you see yourself. You may wonder about how active you can be and even how long you will live. If you had hoped to marry or remarry, you may not want to involve a partner in an uncertain future. Homosexual men who are not in committed relationships have the same worries.

Concerns about having children can also affect your new relationships. You might be sterile because of cancer treatment. Maybe you can still have children but are afraid that cancer will not give you time to see your child grow up. Maybe you are worried about your children’s future.

When dating, people who have had cancer often avoid talking about their illness. At a time when closeness is so important, it can seem risky to draw a potential lover’s attention to your problems. During treatment, you may want to be brave and not complain. And after the cancer has been controlled, you might want to forget that it ever happened.

Sometimes you can ignore the cancer. But when a relationship becomes serious, silence is not the best plan. Before you and your partner decide to make a strong commitment, you should talk about cancer. This is especially true if the length of your life or your fertility has been affected. Otherwise, cancer may become a secret that’s hard to keep and will limit your ability to confide in your partner. A loving partner needs to accept you as you are.

When to talk about your cancer

It’s always a delicate choice when deciding to tell a new or prospective lover about your cancer. Ideally, a couple should discuss cancer when a relationship begins to get serious.

How to bring it up

Try having “the cancer talk” when you and your partner are relaxed and in an intimate mood. Ask your partner a question that leaves room for many answers. The question gives them a chance to consider the new information and respond. It also helps you see how your partner takes this news.

One way is just to mention it, followed with your question. “I really like where our relationship is going, and I need you to know that I had _____ cancer many years ago. How do you think that might affect our relationship?”

You can also reveal your own feelings: “I had ________ cancer ___ years ago. I guess I don’t want to bring it up because I’m afraid you’d rather be with someone who hasn’t had it. It also scares me to remember that time in my life, but I need you to know about it. What are your thoughts or feelings about my having had cancer?”

You can even rehearse how to tell someone you’re dating about your experience with cancer. What message do you want to give? Try some different ways of saying it, and ask a friend for feedback. Did you come across the way you wanted to? Ask your friend to take the role of a new partner who rejects you because you have had cancer. Have your friend tell you what you dread hearing the most, and practice your response. Can you express your feelings in a dignified and satisfying way?

If you have an ostomy, genital scars, or a sexual problem, you may be concerned about when to tell a new dating partner. There are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s often better to wait until you feel a sense of trust and friendship with your partner – a feeling that you are liked as a total person – before sharing such personal information.

The possibility of rejection

The reality is that some potential lovers may reject you because of your cancer or cancer treatment. Of course, almost everyone gets rejected at some time. Even without cancer, people reject each other because of looks, beliefs, personality, or their own issues. But the sad truth is that some single people who have cancer or have had it in the past limit themselves by not even trying to date. Instead of focusing on their good points, they convince themselves that no partner would accept them because of the cancer and the effects of treatment. You can avoid being rejected by staying at home, but you also miss the chance to build a happy, healthy relationship.

Here are some ways to help you make decisions about talking about your cancer:

  • Tell a potential partner about genital scars, an ostomy, or sexual problems when you feel that the person already accepts you and likes you for who you are.
  • Discuss your cancer in depth when a new relationship starts to deepen, especially if you have life expectancy or fertility issues.
  • Prepare for the possibility of rejection: imagine the worst possible reaction of a new potential partner, and how you would respond. But don’t let fear of that reaction keep you from going after a relationship that might work.

When you feel some confidence in your self-worth and your ability to handle rejection, you are ready for the real world. Then, when you start to meet people or to date, think of it as part of a learning process rather than something you must do well on your first try.

Improving your social life

Try working on areas of your social life, too. Single people can avoid feeling alone by building a network of close friends, casual friends, and family. Make the effort to call friends, plan visits, and share activities. Get involved in a hobby, special interest group, or classes that will increase your social circle.

Some volunteer and support groups are geared for people who have faced cancer. You may also want to try some one-on-one or group counseling with a mental health counselor. You can form a more positive view of yourself when you get objective feedback about your strengths from others. Make a list of your good points. What do you like about your looks? What are your talents and skills? What can you give to your partner in a relationship? What makes you a good sex partner? Whenever you catch yourself using cancer as an excuse not to meet new people or date, remind yourself of your assets.

If you feel shy about meeting new people, practice how to handle it. Talk to yourself in the mirror, or ask a close friend or family member to play the part with you.

Last Medical Review: 08/19/2013
Last Revised: 08/19/2013