Love in the time of cancer — three couples find romance despite disease

Hutch News

Love in the time of cancer

Getting dumped after diagnosis isn’t the only story out there; meet three couples who found romance despite disease

Feb. 14, 2017
Happy couple Susan and Jeff

Susan, a stage 4 breast cancer patient, and her brand new husband Jeff, shortly after their wedding in July 2016. The pair met via an online dating site while Susan was going through treatment. "When I told him I was hesitant to tell him about the cancer because I wasn’t sure if he would want to see me anymore, his answer was, ‘Can I see you again?’”

Photo courtesy of Jeff Salmore Photography

Six years ago, I spent Valentine’s weekend lurching around Seattle trying to come to terms with the fact that I was now a cancer patient. I was sort of dating someone at the time, but we weren’t tight enough to be a true couple so there were no roses, no romantic dinner, not even a lousy chocolate kiss.

Instead, I got the cancer kiss-off a few days later, although in capping our fledgling relationship, the guy swore up and down “It’s not the cancer, it’s you.”

Uh … thanks?

If you’ve lived in Cancerland for any length of time, you’ve probably heard stories of patients getting kicked to the curb after a diagnosis. Maybe you’ve even lived through it yourself. It’s a common enough occurrence that it’s been studied, most recently by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center clinical researcher and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance neuro-oncologist Dr. Marc Chamberlain.

Writer and breast cancer survivor Diane Mapes

Writer and breast cancer survivor Diane Mapes

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Sadly, women diagnosed with cancer are about six times more likely to get separated or divorced than guys who get sick, mostly likely, Chamberlain said, because men aren’t as “well-equipped to be primary caregivers.” 

And that may well be true. Fear; financial devastation; the loss of body parts and/or sexual function; the stress of watching someone you care about grow weaker and possibly die: that's a lot for any partner to take on.

But getting dumped after diagnosis isn’t the only storyline when it comes to love in the time of cancer.

There are also stories of people who’ve met their match while recovering from surgeries or slogging through chemo, stories of people who’ve actually found each other because of their diagnosis.

"Dating, love, the excitement of a new relationship — happily, cancer doesn’t diminish any of this thrill," said Dr. Karen Syrjala, co-director of Fred Hutch’s Survivorship Program. "That said, cancer can add a new layer to the complexities of explaining who we are to a new person, and it can introduce a few new insecurities about body image, feeling desirable, feeling vulnerable and wondering if a new person will want to take a chance with someone who’s had cancer."

This Valentine’s Day, we decided to look at three couples touched by cancer who’ve been able to divorce themselves from the challenges of the disease and its treatment — and find true love.

Love is good therapy

Much like me, Joan Campbell, was seeing someone when she learned she had breast cancer in October 2015. Unlike me, the 66-year-old advertising and marketing consultant from Grass Valley, California, was engaged — and the guy immediately offered to move in and help her weather the surgery, chemo and radiation.

Unfortunately, his idea of helping was to give her a horrible cold that promptly segued into a months-long sinus infection, sleep through her middle-of-the-night calls for help and complain that she wasn’t any fun anymore.

“He had no concept of hand sanitizer or being cautious around someone who was immunocompromised,” she said. “He was definitely a ‘no-help helper.’”

He was also unfaithful, she learned, after a single girlfriend stumbled onto his profile while surfing an online dating site. Campbell asked her son to move in, asked the “philandering fiancé” to move out and focused on getting through treatment.

And that may well be true.
Joan Campbell and her fiance, Larry.

Joan Campbell and her new fiance, Larry, met while she was going through treatment for breast cancer; they shared the same massage therapist who suggested they connect. "My advice to others is it can work out," she said. "Just keep your chin up.”

Photo courtesy of Joan Campbell

Months later, she shared her story with a massage therapist who, in turn, told her about a “good guy with a bad back” that she’d been treating for the last 15 years. Still in treatment, Campbell was bald, had a perpetually runny “chemo nose” and was constantly itching from the tape her therapist used to redirect her lymph system.

“I wasn’t sure [that] was a good look,” she said. “But I went ahead and met him at a coffee shop one afternoon. I thought he’d be shocked when I showed up with hardly any hair, no eyebrows and scratching from the lymphedema tape, but he wasn’t. Things took off pretty naturally. He knew I’d been sick. That turned out to be a non-issue.”  

Their pair continued to see each other for the next 13 months, slowly at first since Campbell was still receiving Herceptin infusions. On New Year’s Day of this year, they got engaged.

“Larry is wonderful, caring, loving and there when I need him,” said Campbell of her new fiancé, who no longer needs massage therapy for his back (even better, she’s in remission). “He’s also good company and has a great sense of humor. We’re both kind of goofy and have had some great times.”

The lovebirds, who both have kids about the same age, plan to spend this Valentine’s Day watching one of them compete in the Mountain West Finals swim meet.

“It will be a family day,” she said.   

Was she surprised to find love in the midst of cancer treatment?

“Absolutely,” she said. “I was shocked, but in a good way. We laugh sometimes that I had to go through all of that just to meet him because he lives only five miles away. My advice to others is it can work out. Just keep your chin up.”  

 Don Stranathan and Penny Blume

Stage 4 lung cancer patients Don Stranathan and Penny Blume met on the online patient community Inspire.com in the fall of 2011 and quickly fell in love. They spent 26 months together before Blume succumbed to the disease in early 2014. Here, they're pictured at Lake Tahoe after Penny traveled 3,000 miles for her first date with Don. "We both had Livestrong bracelets," he said. "When she passed, I buried her with mine and kept hers to always remind me to keep fighting."

Photo courtesy of Don Stranathan

Pennies from heaven

Love was the furthest thing from Don Stranathan’s mind in October 2011 when the Santa Rosa, California, lung cancer patient answered a question about juicing from a woman on the online patient community Inspire. But love was what he found with Penny Blume, a vivacious 49-year-old blonde who, like him, was living with terminal lung cancer.

Both single, they quickly friended each other on Facebook and soon were texting every day. Blume was in active treatment for her aggressive small cell lung cancer in New York and was determined to make it to her 50th birthday, several months away. Stranathan, then 59, gamely offered to fly out and buy her dinner for the occasion.

But neither wanted to wait. Neither had the time to wait.  

Shortly after connecting, Blume flew to California for her first date with Stranathan, who by then was responding well to a targeted drug known as Tarceva. The pair clicked and spent several days traveling around Lake Tahoe and Mendocino, falling in love.

They couldn’t move in together since they were both in treatment on opposite sides of the country, so instead, they met up every six weeks.

“Penny had never left New York,” said Stranathan, now 64. “So my goal was to get her to see as much as possible. When someone has a terminal illness, it’s critical that you give them something to look forward to. Every few weeks, she would come out here or I would go back there or we’d meet up at lung cancer summits and conferences. Any opportunity we would get, we would be together.”

Stranathan was able to share Yosemite, Morro Bay, Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert and the California coast with Blume before her cancer progressed, her treatment options dried up and she became too weak to travel. He then took a retirement disability from his business development job, flew Blume out to his home and cared for her there until she died in January 2014.

Since then, Stranathan has become even more involved in patient advocacy, fulfilling a promise he made to his beloved. He has not yet re-entered the dating pool.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Penny and I had a beautiful relationship. In the two and a half years we were together, we never once had a disagreement — we were dealing with bigger issues. I’m not opposed to the idea of a new relationship, but I have two options: a fellow survivor or someone not affected by cancer. Knowing the pain I went through at the end, I would have a hard time asking someone to go through it with me. And I know I wouldn't want to experience that heartache again.”

Now on an immunotherapy drug, Stranathan still wrestles with the side effects and late effects of his treatment. But he continues to hike, spin and mountain bike regularly and looks for blessings every day.

“Ever since she passed, there will be times when I’m alone and I’ll find a penny in the most unusual places,” he said. “A year ago I was in Wisconsin and had gone down to the river to fish after dinner and I was thinking how lovely the evening was and how I would have liked to have shared it with Penny. And just as I thought that, I looked down and there was a penny shining up at me in the water. I reached down and it was gone. But I always know that she’s with me.”

One last good date

Susan, a 52-year-old web analyst and patient from Washington, D.C., who asked that we not use her last name due to stigma, had one relationship goal after learning she had stage 4 breast cancer in 2012.

“The last date I had before my diagnosis was horrific,” she said. “My goal was to just have one date where I wasn’t feeling physically ill or homicidal by the end of it.” 

So like many single cancer patients (present company included), she started navigating the surreal world of dating while in treatment, doing her best to find a way to share the realities of her diagnosis, her side effects and her prognosis without chasing potential suitors away.

It was not always easy — some dates, she admitted, walked away shellshocked after she “threw all the details out there in a one big blob.” But after the false starts and some helpful advice from fellow patients, she discovered spoon-feeding her cancer story and then simply answering questions was a far better way to proceed than “pulling out a medical report on the first date.”

Syrjala said this tactic is common among cancer survivors.

"Everyone has imperfections and history, and part of falling in love is loving the imperfections. Still, it isn’t necessary to tell a new date everything all in the first date," she said. "It’s possible to be genuine and interested to get to know another person and to tell someone about oneself, without explaining all the details all at once."

Susan used this approach with Jeff, a Washington, D.C., patent examiner who responded to her online dating profile just as she was about to give up her quest to find a partner.

“It was very interesting,” she said of their early conversations. “I was scared to talk about it because I was afraid he was going to leave. And I wouldn’t blame him. It’s very heavy; it’s signing up for a lot. But he was very matter-of-fact about it. I told him about my stage 4 diagnosis and he said, ‘Are you OK now?’ I said, I’m stable but will need continuing treatment and he asked what kind. I told him targeted chemotherapy and then told him I was hesitant to tell him about the cancer because I wasn’t sure if he wanted to see me anymore. His answer was, ‘Can I see you again?’”

The pair continued to date — and eventually fell in love — marrying last July in a small church celebration complete with good friends, barbecued ribs and blues.  

Was their love match a fluke when research tells us that oftentimes, love walks out when cancer walks in?

“I’ve seen lots of people who’ve found partners after diagnosis or had partners stick with them through diagnosis,” she said. “It’s not that uncommon. I don’t mean to be judgmental, but they’re just higher quality partners. Jeff has done three ER visits with me. He’s come with me to get scan results. He’s made of different stuff.”

Dating with cancer, she said, is no different than dating with any kind of complicated issue.

“Go out with the point of enjoying the person, then when it gets personal, introduce the subject, wait for the questions and take it slow,” she said. “And remember, men are like buses. If you miss one, there will be another one right along.”

As a single patient with cancer, I’m heartened by her advice, especially since I recently met someone who seems interested in getting to know me better. I told him about my breast cancer, my surgeries and what it means when a body (not to mention an already quirky brain) go through the treatment mill. But so far, he's undaunted.  

Once again, it's not the cancer, it’s me — but this time it's for all the right reasons.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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