Cancer, Sex, and the Single Adult Male

Being single can mean someone is unmarried, does not have a domestic partner, or is not currently in a romantic relationship. It has nothing to do with their sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather their relationship status.

Single people who have cancer often have the same physical, psychological, spiritual, and financial concerns as people with cancer who are married, have a partner, or are in a relationship. But these issues can be more concerning in people who are single, and getting through treatment can be harder in some ways. Single people with cancer have several needs that others may not, because:

  • They may live alone, might be a single parent, and might have less support at home.
  • They may live far away from family and friends.
  • They may be dating or thinking about getting back into the dating scene. This can make them worry how a future partner might react when they learn about their cancer or that a body part has been removed, or if there are fertility problems.
  • It may be harder to deal with the demands of treatment, such as if they need time off work, rides to appointments, child care, or help around the house.
  • They usually have just one income source.
  • They might be newly single after a relationship that was going on before their diagnosis has ended.

Relationship experts suggest that cancer survivors should not have more problems finding a date than people who are not cancer survivors. However, studies show that survivors who had cancer in their childhood or teenage years might feel anxious about dating and being in social situations if they had limited social activities during their illness and treatment. For survivors who had or have cancer as an adult, a personal or family experience with cancer can affect a possible partner's reaction to hearing about the survivor's cancer. For example, a widow or a divorced person whose former partner had a history of cancer may have a different reaction than someone who has not had the same experience.

Common dating concerns when you have cancer

Studies show single people who have cancer are most worried about:

  • Telling a possible partner about their cancer history, when to tell them, and how much to tell.
  • Feeling unattractive because their appearance has changed, such as weight changes, hair loss, or loss of a body part.
  • Physical problems such as fatigue, pain, or neuropathy, or problems that might affect sexual function, bowel and bladder function, or how they walk or talk.
  • Being able to have children in the future (fertility) and the health of future children.
  • Not many people wanting to date them.
  • Starting a relationship because cancer might come back.
  • Taking their clothes off or having sex.
  • Feeling the need to move quickly in a relationship because they don't want to "waste time."

When is the right time to start dating

Deciding about when to start dating after a cancer diagnosis is a personal choice. Single people with cancer need to make their own decision about this. Some people might think dating will help them feel "normal" and going out helps them keep their mind off issues related to their cancer.

Studies show some find it challenging to start a new relationship or trying to date during treatment. If you're recovering from surgery, getting regular treatments, or treatments in cycles, or dealing with side effects of medications, being "yourself" on a date can be hard. Your appearance might have changed, or your energy level might be lower. In addition to having home and family responsibilities, you also might have extra appointments that use up some of your personal time. For these reasons, many people with cancer wait until treatment has ended or until they've had a chance to recover before they join the dating scene again.

When to talk about cancer

If you're thinking about dating for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer, it's important to think about if and when you want to mention you're a cancer survivor. Some people might want to give this information up front, and even list it in their profile if they're using a dating site or app. Others might prefer to have a face-to-face talk about it when they meet someone. And some people might want to wait until they've been dating someone for a while or until a relationship becomes serious.

Being comfortable talking about your cancer might not be possible, but it's best to tell someone about having cancer before make a strong commitment.

How to bring it up

Try having “the cancer talk” when you and your partner are relaxed and in an intimate mood. Tell your partner you have something important you’d like to discuss. Then ask them a question that leaves room for many answers. This gives them a chance to take in the new information and respond. It also helps you see how they take the news.

You might want to start with something like this: “I really like where our relationship is going, and I need you to know that I have (or had) _____ cancer. How do you think that might affect our relationship?”

You can also share your own feelings: “I have (or had) ________ cancer. I guess I haven’t wanted to bring it up because I’ve been worried about how you’d react to it. It also scares me to think about it, but I need you to know about it. What are your thoughts or feelings about it?”

You may want to practice how you might tell a dating partner about your cancer history. 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, and have them give you different types of responses to your question.

How much to share about your cancer experience

If you have had a body part removed, or if you have an ostomy, large scars, or a sexual problem, you may be worried about when or how much to tell a new dating partner. You may want to tell your full cancer history all at once, or during a few talk sessions. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but telling the truth and trusting the person you're talking to are very important.

The possibility of rejection

It's possible that someone you're interested in dating might not want to date a cancer survivor. Or, once they know your full story, it might be too much for them to handle. It's important to remember that even without cancer, people reject each other because of looks, beliefs, personality, or their own issues.

Remember that being single does not mean being alone, or being unloved. There are many in-person and online support groups that have members who are single people, too. Connecting, learning, and sharing your story with people who are in similar situations can be very helpful. You can feel more supported and confident when someone listens to you and truly understands. And, feeling some confidence in yourself can help you feel ready to date, be able to handle the possibility of being rejected, and help you know you can move on.

Improving your social life

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

Support groups can help, too. 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. 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 as a partner. What do you like about yourself? What are your talents and skills? What can you offer 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 these things.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Adorno G et al. Positive aspects of having had cancer: A mixed-methods analysis of responses from the American Cancer Society Study of Cancer Survivors-II (SCS-II). Psychooncology. 2018;27(5):1412-1425.

American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists Medical Guidelines for Clinical Practice for the Evaluation and Treatment of Male Sexual Dysfunction: A couple’s problem – 2003. Update Endocr Pract. 2003;9(No. 1). Accessed at https://www.aace.com/sites/default/files/2019-06/sexdysguid.pdf on January 31, 2020.

Burg MA, Adorno G, Lopez ED, Loerzel V, Stein K, Wallace C, Sharma DK. Current unmet needs of cancer survivors: Analysis of open-ended responses to the American Cancer Society Study of Cancer Survivors-II (CSC-II). Cancer. 2015;121(4):623-630.

Carter et al. Interventions to address sexual problems in people with cancer: American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline adaptation of Cancer Care Ontario guideline. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2018;36(5):492-513.

Katz A. Breaking the Silence on Cancer and Sexuality: A Handbook for Healthcare Providers. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society.; 2018.

Katz, A. Man Cancer Sex. Pittsburgh: Hygeia Media, 2010.

Moment A. Sexuality, intimacy, and cancer. In Abrahm JL, ed. A Physician’s Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2014:390-426.

Thompson AL, Long KA, Marsland AL. Impact of childhood cancer on emerging adult survivors' romantic relationships: A qualitative account. J Sex Med. 2013; 10(S1):65-73.

Tuinman MA, Lehmann V, Hagedoorn M. Do single people want to date a cancer survivor? PLoS One. 2018;13(3):e0194277.

References

Adorno G et al. Positive aspects of having had cancer: A mixed-methods analysis of responses from the American Cancer Society Study of Cancer Survivors-II (SCS-II). Psychooncology. 2018;27(5):1412-1425.

American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists Medical Guidelines for Clinical Practice for the Evaluation and Treatment of Male Sexual Dysfunction: A couple’s problem – 2003. Update Endocr Pract. 2003;9(No. 1). Accessed at https://www.aace.com/sites/default/files/2019-06/sexdysguid.pdf on January 31, 2020.

Burg MA, Adorno G, Lopez ED, Loerzel V, Stein K, Wallace C, Sharma DK. Current unmet needs of cancer survivors: Analysis of open-ended responses to the American Cancer Society Study of Cancer Survivors-II (CSC-II). Cancer. 2015;121(4):623-630.

Carter et al. Interventions to address sexual problems in people with cancer: American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline adaptation of Cancer Care Ontario guideline. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2018;36(5):492-513.

Katz A. Breaking the Silence on Cancer and Sexuality: A Handbook for Healthcare Providers. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society.; 2018.

Katz, A. Man Cancer Sex. Pittsburgh: Hygeia Media, 2010.

Moment A. Sexuality, intimacy, and cancer. In Abrahm JL, ed. A Physician’s Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2014:390-426.

Thompson AL, Long KA, Marsland AL. Impact of childhood cancer on emerging adult survivors' romantic relationships: A qualitative account. J Sex Med. 2013; 10(S1):65-73.

Tuinman MA, Lehmann V, Hagedoorn M. Do single people want to date a cancer survivor? PLoS One. 2018;13(3):e0194277.

Last Revised: February 5, 2020

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.