Navigating romantic relationships while living with breast cancer
February 14, 2023
Coping with breast cancer can be a challenging and life-changing experience. After a breast cancer diagnosis, you might find that your perspective on romantic relationships has shifted and you may be left wondering how to navigate your interactions with those closest to you, while also grappling with the physical and emotional aftermath of breast cancer. You’re not alone with these feelings.
Here are four considerations to keep in mind to help you prioritize your own mental health and self-care, along with your relationship:
- Find the right time to disclose: Disclosing your cancer experience to a new romantic partner is a personal decision that should be made in your own time and in a way that feels comfortable for you. When you do decide you’re ready to share, it can be helpful to approach the conversation in a calm and confident manner. Allow your partner to ask questions and provide reassurance and support as needed. It’s important to remember that not everyone may be comfortable with the realities surrounding your cancer diagnosis, and that’s okay. The right person for you will accept and support you, regardless of your cancer story. Don’t let cancer prevent you from being open to meeting new people or forging new partnerships.
- Communicate openly: Breast cancer can be a difficult topic to discuss but don’t be afraid to speak openly and honestly about what you’re going through. Your partner may feel at a loss for how to best support you so feel empowered to share your feelings, needs, and concerns to nurture intimacy. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that caregivers of cancer patients are at a significantly higher risk of suffering from anxiety and depression disorders. Be honest about how you’re feeling and what you need from your partner, and also encourage them to share their own thoughts and feelings about your diagnosis with you. Open communication is hard work but it’s so worth it to learn how to best support each other during this challenging time in your relationship. Also take advantage of any counseling resources available to you, if you’re eager for extra support. Your nurse navigator or social worker may be able to suggest a couples counselor who can help you and your partner share your feelings in a safe and supporting environment.
- Be patient with yourself: Give yourself time and space to heal, and don’t push yourself too hard. Breast cancer can affect a person’s body image and self-esteem, which can influence their ability to feel intimate with their partner. It’s important to talk about these concerns and find ways to be intimate that are comfortable for both of you. Breast cancer treatment often results in sexual side effects that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. You may experience changes such as vaginal dryness, decreased sexual desire, physical changes to your body, fatigue, and reduced lubrication. These side effects can be temporary or long-lasting, but it’s important to know that there are options available to help manage them. Don’t hesitate to speak with your oncologist about how cancer treatment has affected your sexual health. Together, you can explore treatment options, such as lubricants, vaginal estrogen, or physical therapy for your pelvic floor, that may improve your sexual well-being and help you manage these side effects.
- Take care of yourself: Investing in self-care after a breast cancer diagnosis can benefit your intimate relationships. When you prioritize your own well-being, you can develop a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth, which can improve your communication and connection with others. Self-care can help reduce stress and improve physical health, which can have a positive impact on mood and energy levels, leading to more positive interactions with others. Additionally, taking time for self-care can provide a sense of control and empower you to approach your intimate relationships with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose. Self-care can look different for each person–e.g. it could mean taking a walk, watching your favorite show, doing yoga, or cooking–but the goal is to engage in activities that bring joy and a sense of balance to one’s life.
Breast cancer can both influence and change romantic relationships, but it doesn’t have to define them. Take time to consider your needs and what you want out of a relationship, and don’t be afraid to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist if needed. Remember that the right person for you will accept and support you, regardless of your breast cancer experiences. Your cancer diagnosis has given you strength, resilience, and a deeper appreciation for life, and these qualities can enhance your intimate relationships in profound ways.