Finding love despite illness: Examining emerging disease-focused dating Websites

Christina T. Loguidice
Published: Friday, May 07, 2010
Dating can be a terrifying and frustrating endeavor, especially if you are shy or socially awkward. It may seem impossible to even meet someone when you find yourself struggling to muster up the courage to initiate a conversation. Now imagine you are struggling with or have just overcome a major health issue such as cancer. Not only do you have to deal with all the usual dating obstacles, but you have to determine when to disclose this to a potential love interest. If the disease is communicable, such as HIV, there are disclosure laws in place that can put an individual at risk of criminal prosecution if not followed. For those with non-communicable diseases such as cancer, there are no laws outlining when disclosure must occur. Regardless of the illness and laws, disclosure is one of the greatest challenges faced by individuals battling a disease or disability. The fear of rejection can be paralyzing, and there is a fine line between telling someone too soon or waiting too long and risking becoming emotionally vested.   
 
The Internet has made dating a little easier, and while online dating had some stigma attached to it in the past, it has become more commonplace and acceptable. A benefit of online dating is that it bypasses issues of social awkwardness or shyness and allows you to determine whether you may be compatible with someone before you meet them; however, if you have an illness, determining when to reveal this to a potential mate you’ve met online is still a struggle. Do you tell them before you meet? Can you handle potential rejection if you tell them after you meet? This is precisely the dilemma that a new genre of dating sites geared specifically for individuals with illnesses are seeking to eliminate.
 
Oncology Net Guide had the opportunity to interview the founders of two of these sites: Prescription4Love and C is for Cupid. The first site has over 8000 members and provides a social network to people with various conditions, ranging from cancer and HIV to obesity and alcoholism, whereas the second has about 1600 members with cancer. In speaking with the founders, it became clear that because these sites allow users to be upfront with their illness, they can concentrate on developing meaningful relationships without the fear of being rejected because of their illness.
 
While an oncologist’s role is not necessarily to play matchmaker, helping with complex emotional issues can go a long way toward putting a patient on the road to recovery. This may be especially important for patients facing disfiguring surgeries such as mastectomy, which may leave them feeling unattractive and undesirable. As noted by Jan Gurley, MD, an internist physician practicing in San Francisco, in her Dating Post Diagnosis: 6 Practical Tips blog post, “for many patients, when it’s time to face recovery, and the battle for survival has receded a bit, self-doubt is a disease that is epidemic, and virulent. Left unchecked, it can mutate into self-loathing, and then leave permanent emotional scars that can disable.” She notes that physicians can prevent this by focusing on the whole patient, which may entail venturing into uncomfortable territory and talking with patients about intimate matters, including dating. Websites such as Prescription4Love.com and cisforcupid.com may serve as a resource for helping some patients develop meaningful relationships and restore normalcy to their lives following a devastating diagnosis.
 
Prescription4Love was founded in February 2006 by Ricky Durham as a dedication to his brother, Keith, who had suffered from Crohn’s disease, which had caused Keith’s weight to drop to as low as 75 pounds at times and resulted in him wearing a colostomy bag. A major issue for Keith was disclosing his illness to others. “Deciding when to tell someone you have a colostomy bag is incredibly difficult,” Ricky told Oncology Net Guide. “I thought if Keith had a chance to meet someone with a similar condition, there would be no need to have to disclose anything. This is when Prescription4Love became a vision,” he added. Although the Website was still in its developmental stages when Keith passed away in July 2004, he liked the idea.
 
The Website started with 11 conditions and a simple design, and has grown considerably over the 4 years it has been in existence. Currently, the site has over 8000 users worldwide and over 40 conditions listed, including communicable and non- communicable illnesses; genetic, cognitive, and metabolic disorders; and disfigurement from burns or amputation. It includes “men looking for women, women looking for men, women looking for women, and men looking for men,” said Ricky, who also noted that new members are signing up daily, with many willing to date outside of their illness. This expands the options considerably because some people do not want to date someone with the same illness, and these sites have few members compared with major online dating outlets like eHarmony and Match.com, which have millions of users.
 
Prescription4Love was initially supported by Ricky’s father, but they recently started charging a fee of $9.95 to help pay for expansion of the Website’s features. Members now have the ability to contact each other through e-mail, instant messaging, or via a new blogging feature that is set up similar to Facebook. Registration takes just a few minutes, and once users complete and submit their registration form, they can start searching for potential matches. “All private information and e-mails are kept confidential,” assures Ricky.
 
While some users have been asked to be removed from the site because they have found love, Ricky notes that many who make love connections opt to stay on because the site is also a friendship site. This is similar to CisforCupid.com, another emerging site, but one that is focused on cancer. 
 
C is for Cupid (CIFC) was launched in 2007 by Lesley Topping, a breast cancer survivor and film editor living in Brooklyn. The site “serves as an alternative online dating service for people whose lives have been affected by cancer,” Topping told Oncology Net Guide. She noted that while it may not appeal to everyone since cancer is stressful and raises many concerns, it nevertheless serves as a useful resource to others, “allowing them to connect in a direct, open, and supportive setting with others who can relate.”
 
While some have equated online dating with entering a meat market, CIFC instead evokes a feeling of peace and community as one is greeted with a tapestry showing red-crowned cranes on the home page and other images subtly representing love when perusing other sections of the site. Lesley chose the cranes to represent CIFC because they are symbols of longevity and love in some parts of the world, and she found their picture comforting during her treatments. She hopes the cranes will bring others comfort as well, noting that many use the site as they are undergoing treatment. This finding surprised her, because she envisioned it mostly being used by those who have completed treatments.
 
CIFC operates similar to other dating sites. First users submit their e-mail address for verification. “E-mail and other personal information is never sold or given to outside sources,” noted Lesley. Once the address is verified, users can create a personal profile, sharing their information and describing what kind of relationship they are looking for. “Users are not required to discuss their cancer in their profile,” said Lesley. Once a profile is approved, the ability to search profiles and communicate with others via a private mailbox is enabled. In the coming months, CIFC is looking to add the ability to blog.
 
As of January 2010, the site had over 1600 users. Although women largely outnumber the men, the demographics are changing as more users are becoming aware of the site and registering, which is free. The site is currently supported through donations and its online shop on Café Press , which features items such as coasters and canvas bags adorned with CIFC’s signature cranes.
 
A Personal Account of Dating Despite Cancer
 
Oncology Net Guide had the opportunity to discuss online dating with Jeanne Sather, who had generated a media frenzy in 2007 after placing a personals ad on her blog, The Assertive Cancer Patient, looking for a Canadian husband. The ad read, in part, “Assertive, adventurous 52-year-old woman, living with incurable cancer, would like to meet a marriage-minded Canadian gent who is a cancer survivor or living with the disease. ... You: Age 45 to about 57. Canadian citizen living in Vancouver, B.C., or willing to relocate there. Cancer patient or survivor. Open-minded. Bit of a risk taker. Warm hearted but not clinging. Bald OK.” She received quite a few offers, mainly from men in their 70s, but also one from a beautiful, healthy, young, heterosexual, black woman living in Ontario who was willing to help Jeanne out. “[The ad] was more a political statement about the lousy state of health insurance coverage in this country than it was a serious search for a man, but I did meet a few men,” Jeanne said. 
 
Jeanne is an outspoken advocate for cancer patients whose breast cancer journey started in 1998 when she was 43 years old. She underwent a mastectomy followed by 12 weeks of chemotherapy. During this time, she was dating a man, but it did not work out. “I ended the relationship immediately. He was not someone who could cope with any of this, and he made that clear early on by putting demands on me—he needed me to take care of him, and I was the one with cancer!,” she said. “I was also working full- time as a journalist, and I had two young children. My sons were 13 and 8. With the demands of cancer treatment on top of everything else, I think I felt that there wasn’t time or energy for dating. And it seemed so superficial, worrying about impressing some guy, when I was facing life and death issues.”
 
In 2001, Jeanne learned that the cancer had metastasized to her bones, and she has been receiving almost continuous treatment since then. In 2008, she wrote in her blog “having gotten my cancer beaten back, yet again—I feel like looking around,” and so she posted a profile on CIFC, but never received a response, noting that part of the problem is that women largely outnumber the men on these types of sites. “I think women in general are much more willing to take care of a partner who has cancer, and are more willing to enter into a new relationship with someone who either has cancer or has a cancer history, than men are,” she notes. This astute observation was recently confirmed in a study  that revealed a much higher incidence of separation or divorce following a cancer or multiple sclerosis diagnosis in women than in men, with a divorce rate of 20.8% versus 2.9%, respectively.
 
In April 2009, Jeanne discovered a new dating site, geared specifically for the terminally ill, called Till-Death-Do-Us-Part.com. She posted a profile, but could not contact the handful of people who were registered on the site, and even sent an e-mail to the founder to no avail. The story behind that Website is unclear, and it is no longer in operation. Jeanne is now spending time with “Car Guy,” as he is referred to in her blog. He is the mechanic who fixed her 1964 Corvair, and they have cultivated a deep friendship, which can be complicated at times because of her cancer.
 
 
Based on her experience, Jeanne recommends that the first place those with cancer should search for someone to spend time with, and potentially their life with, is in the real world, through night classes, support groups, and volunteering. According to Jeanne, this allows people “to get to know you and become friends before you look at them as potential partners.” She notes that while this approach takes more time, it is more likely to be successful. As a second option, she suggests going to Websites geared specifically for people with cancer or other health problems.
 
Putting It in Perspective
 
Individuals facing cancer or those who have completed treatment may want to start dating, but the thought of jumping in may be overwhelming. Disease-focused Websites like Prescription4Love and CIFC provide these individuals with another alternative, while eliminating the potential dilemma of when to share one’s medical history with a potential love interest. Although these sites currently have relatively few members, they are growing daily and expanding their features, which may draw in even more people. As the sites grow, so will their potential for making love connections.



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