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Romantic Relationships, Stress, and Breast Cancer

Updated on January 03, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Courtney Lee Adams

A 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that fewer Americans mention spouses or romantic relationships as a source of meaning in life compared with 2017 results. However, there is evidence that having a “satisfying romantic relationship” may improve health outcomes for breast cancer survivors, according to a Science Daily article. In the article, writers cite the results of a recent study showing that happy romantic relationships are connected to positive health outcomes via your body’s inflammatory response to stress.

Conversely, earlier research indicates that marital strife can adversely affect women who are surviving breast cancer. It may be the quality of the romantic relationship that matters, not just that it exists. And for unpartnered women, trying to connect via dating can be stressful in a way that directly affects your health.

Healthy, supportive relationships may decrease our stress, while distressed relationships can increase it. Our relationships can either support us or undermine people living with breast cancer, depending on their quality and what they bring into their lives.

The Stress and Inflammation Connection

The impact of relationships on health involves inflammation and stress. In a 2020 study, women were given two questionnaires. One evaluated four measures of relationship satisfaction, and one measured perceived levels of psychological stress. Women who experienced high levels of relationship satisfaction were also more likely to report low levels of stress, and blood work revealed they also had fewer proteins that promote inflammation in the body. Stress levels, measured via the stress hormone cortisol, have been linked to the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

Romantic partnerships — relationships of all sorts — can be severely tested by the challenges of a breast cancer diagnosis. They can also provide powerful support in the form of acceptance and commitment — emotional resources that promote survivors’ health, according to research.

Breast Cancer and Sex

From diagnosis to survivorship, breast cancer can slow down your love life and present significant challenges to intimacy. Some treatments for breast cancer have hormonal effects. Remembering the many dimensions that intimacy can take helps many breast cancer survivors maintain thriving relationships that support their health and well-being.

Many women report menopausal symptoms such as loss of libido, pain, or dryness that affect sexual function as well as self-esteem. One MyBCTeam member talks about how surgically induced menopause has “made sexual intimacy a production that doesn’t necessarily work every time,” adding that she also feels like “less than a woman.”

Decreased sexual desire is a common theme among those with breast cancer, and some members express worry that their partner finds them less attractive. One MyBCTeam member expressed her concerns about potential rejection from her partner, saying, “Feels like my significant other is not interested in my reconstructed boobs. Doesn’t want to touch them much.” Another member explained that although she was ready to resume intimacy with her husband fairly quickly after treatment, “He is afraid of the medication I take for breast cancer getting into his system.”

Your partner probably has hopes and fears of their own, and the best way to approach them is through open and honest communication. And as one MyBCTeam member said, “There can still be plenty of affection and intimacy without penetration.” Talking to your partner openly and honestly about your difficulties with sex can help you explore new ways to relate to each other physically and emotionally.

Communication and Self-Acceptance

Although breast cancer can bring challenges to any relationship, at least one study has found that an early-stage breast cancer diagnosis is not a risk factor for divorce. Communication and self-acceptance can bring you and your partner closer together as a couple, sometimes in ways that may surprise you.

It may be difficult to open up at first. Start simple, making time to just talk without an agenda. Making yourself vulnerable by sharing your worries can open the door to a productive dialogue.

When communication seems stuck, consider asking for a third person to help you better communicate with your partner. That third party could be a therapist or counselor, an oncology social worker, or even your oncologist. With research showing the benefit of good romantic relationships on health outcomes, it’s more important than ever that oncology teams take a holistic approach to the emotional health of those living with breast cancer.

Dating Games?

New relationships present their own set of challenges, one of which is knowing when to let the person you’re dating know that you are living with breast cancer. You may feel like you should present this information on every first date, but there’s no reason to assume that living with cancer defines you in every way, or that everyone deserves to know. Relationships take time to grow and nurture, and not every first date will be worth a second, or even a third. Give trust time to develop.

Once you feel comfortable confiding your diagnosis to the new person in your life, don’t dally if reactions feel hurtful or unsupportive. One MyBCTeam member said, half-joking, “Each time I tell a guy, they run the other way.” Move on until you find the relationship that provides you with what you need during this time.

Whether or not you are actively dating, self-compassion is key. Recognize that your value and self-worth are more than skin deep. One study reported that unpartnered women who had low self-compassion and a high value placed on appearance for self-worth had a harder time forming new romantic relationships after undergoing breast cancer treatment.

Just like partnered women, single women who are forming new relationships that include sexual intimacy should take it slow, keep the lines of communication open, and take time to work on self-acceptance.

Changing Relationships

Some relationships just won’t be able to go the distance, and that can be disappointing.

“Relationships invariably change, and not always for the better,” wrote one MyBCTeam member, as another described relationship problems. “Cancer does make you re-evaluate many things in your life. I find that I am less tolerant of people who bring me down, and I am more self-protective about who I allow into my life.” Making these shifts and letting go of stressful relationships may be painful, but it can be the path to finding more satisfying connections.

Try to be open to finding the intimacy you need outside romantic relationships. “We cherish our physical or sexual connection with a beloved partner, but that is usually not at the top of the wish list during cancer treatment,” wrote Hester Hill Schnipper, manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “We are longing to feel loved, cherished, understood, heard, and comforted. Those feelings may come from a partner, but they can also be felt in other important relationships. True intimacy happens with other family members and with close friends.”

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer. On MyBCTeam, more than 54,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

How has breast cancer affected your marriage, partnership, or dating life? Does your relationship more often reduce or increase your stress? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Courtney Lee Adams is a writer and editor from New York City. Learn more about her here.

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