As we transition from adolescence to young adulthood, much of who we are is solidified. We begin to think for ourselves, learn from our experiences and in turn, produce the people we become. Along with this personal development, we also mature on a social level. We begin looking for emotional and romantic relationships which complement this personal change. So what happens to these relationships when there is a crisis or more specifically a cancer diagnosis?
Diagnosis prior to starting a relationship
As a two time young adult cancer survivor, I know far too well how a cancer diagnosis influences romantic relationships. My first diagnosis was a week before my 18th birthday; I was single at the time and just starting university. In order to have a meaningful relationship or at least a long standing one, I would eventually have to explain my medical history. The main stumbling block I faced was when to tell a date that I have had cancer. When is the appropriate time to tell a potential future mate that you have/had a life threatening disease?
This was incredibly difficult at first, even telling my friends and family had been a struggle. My first victory was after four months of dating where I blurted out that I had had cancer. It was expectedly received with silence and was an incredibly scary moment for me. Luckily, my future wife took a few seconds to recoil from my news and responded with a number of thoughtful questions. It was the first time I was able to speak about my disease and allowed me to finally open up to her.
Diagnosis during a relationship
My second diagnosis occurred after we had been dating for three years. From my perspective, this diagnosis was more difficult on our relationship than the first. Emotionally, I struggled with the idea of allowing a person I cared for watch me become so vulnerable. Would she ever see me as the man she dated before? I also aimed to protect her and basically told her to leave me. Luckily for me she stayed, but going through two surgeries and chemotherapy together certainly strained our relationship.
In light of this, it is not inconceivable to think that cancer could break up a relationship. Cancer changed me in many ways; in fact, it changed me in every way. For the person on the other side of this relationship, they must not only deal with the fact that a person they care for is sick but also deal with their changes. Along with this, there is no support for caregivers in this capacity. They must “deal” with these issues alone to prevent the person they are supporting from being bothered with their problems. This was really eye opening once my treatment was completed and was a stumbling block in our relationship. As ridiculous as it sounds now, at the time, I was unaware that my diagnosis and treatment affected her in such a dramatic way.
Looking for love in all the right places
I believe that all young adult cancer patients should be told about medically relevant information, and given support to deal with this disease emotionally. Relationships and fertility may be of less importance than survival at the time of diagnosis, however, they play a major role for the rest of our lives. The caregivers of these patients are often excluded from this process but also need to be supported. As mentioned earlier, caregivers have to deal with a dramatic change for themselves and for their loved one.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Can young people diagnosed with cancer still have normal relationships and find love? Personally, I think being diagnosed with cancer at a young age actually helped me find the right person. With time, I was able to learn something from these experiences and use this knowledge to better my relationship. Unfortunately for me, I was never given any peer or professional support to deal with psychological issues pertaining to my illness and ended up clawing my way through them. I personally believe that in order to move on romantically you must first be comfortable with the person you have become.
So, young adult survivors, there is hope. In my experience, it is a matter of finding someone who accepts the fact that you have the disease and is capable of dealing with the changes. I have been married now for two years and although cancer challenged our relationship, it certainly made it stronger.
Timothy Buckland is a 26 year old two time testicular cancer survivor. He recently completed his Master’s degree in Biochemistry where he studied pro-growth signalling in breast cancer. He has also begun working at the Canadian Cancer Society as a Revenue Development Coordinator.