Beginning a new relationship after cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

It’s challenging to begin a new relationship after having had cancer. I’ve written about that as have many others.

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 visitor 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 it is even scarier.

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 check-up are the only reminders.

For other couples, the cancer is a day-to-day presence. Some cancers require on-going treatment. Even cancers that are presumably cured can have significant after-effects including changes in body image, infertility, and fatigue. These are real challenges to a 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.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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