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When Should I Reveal Past Cancer and Depression?

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Dear Matchmaker Rabbi,

I am 52 years old and disabled. I have lung cancer (I’m 2.5-year survivor) and have been clinically depressed since I was 24. The depression is under control with medication, but some of the symptoms still occur. I sleep a lot and sometimes get withdrawn.

I am disabled, but do not look disabled. I had a brain tumor removed in 1985, and lost fine motor coordination on my right side. The symptoms of that, bad coordination, walking funny, dropping things, make me look like I’m drunk.

When meeting someone who wants a long-term relationship, when is the proper time to disclose these disabilities? Upfront, in the beginning of the relationship? Or keep it secret until a symptom rears its head?

Mental illness is hard to explain and it takes a patient person to have a relationship with someone who suffers from depression, and I’m never going to be cured. Even though I am a cancer survivor, the cancer is not cured, merely in remission.

What to do? Should I disclose and let the other person decide whether they want to keep seeing me, or not disclose and have the other person find out little by little? I am really honest about what I am looking for, but I am pragmatic and don’t want to saddle a person with the surety that at some point in time, I’m going to have to be taken care of.

– In a Quandry

 Dear Quandry:

If it brings you any solace, rest assured half of the people on JDate have some “skeleton” they are afraid to reveal! I have friends who have agonized over everything from “When do I admit I’m a recovering alcoholic?” to “When do I tell someone my family isn’t Jewish and I converted?” to “When should I say I filed bankruptcy two years ago and lost my house?”

While none of these things should be viewed as an automatic “ding” against someone’s character, the reality is that for a certain percentage of people, they are. Everyone has a list of things they can’t accept in a partner, and things like cancer, addiction or bankruptcy can be on that list.

That said, I am a whole-hearted believer that there really is someone for everyone! Any person dating from a place of maturity knows that we are all complex, multidimensional human beings and not just a collection of “conditions.”

Regardless of what a person’s “big secret” happens to be, there are a few principles I think apply to all situations.

The Revelation Rules

1. You have an obligation to reveal the secret before the relationship progresses to sex. You are dead-on when you say that a person has a right to decide for himself what “issues” he is or is not prepared to deal with, and that means honoring his right to decide before he has invested himself intimately.

I’m still angry about the guy I dated for months before I figured out he had diagnosed bipolar disorder and was self-medicating with marijuana. When I confronted him, he fessed up, but what made me most upset was not his medical condition, but rather the fact he thought he could keep it from me! The irony is, if he had been more upfront from the beginning, I would have better understood along the way all of the unusual behavior traits he was exhibiting, and for which I was coming up with far more damning explanations!

2. Revealing your secrets before full intimacy does NOT necessarily mean on the first date, or even on your JDate profile. Here is where we get into the big gray area of “it depends on the issue.” And,

3. Regardless of when this “right time” turns out to be, framing is everything. You can’t control the fact you have depression and cancer history; but you can control how you talk about it, and therefore, how you think about it.

There is a powerful idea in Judaism that action is more important than belief. What matters when you say a prayer is not whether, in that moment, you believe everything you are saying. Rather, what matters is you are doing the prayer – and the belief might come later. It’s an idea, backed by modern psychology, that how we talk about something can actually have a huge influence on how we think and feel about it!

In my mind, you do not “have cancer that is just in remission and could come back anytime.” You are a “cancer survivor” who has, literally, survived cancer for 2.5 years. You should be proud about the mental and physical strength it took to do that! Yes, the cancer may come back. But guess what – cancer can also come back for people who are told they are cured. And every day in this country, people who think they are cancer-free find out that they are, in fact, cancer patients.

You can’t even say with surety that the person who falls in love with you will have to take care of you one day. Maybe something unexpected will happen, and you will have to care for him first!

In your case, I think revealing the cancer issue is clear cut. State in your profile that you are a cancer survivor, and follow it up with a sincerely positive statement. An example might be: “I’m a cancer survivor, and now that I have my strength back, I am so happy to go out and enjoy life with a special someone!” I know I would not hesitate to have a date with someone who framed his cancer like that!

Whatever it is you say – be sincere, but also stay positive. The details of your condition, the statistical odds of it returning, etc., none of that needs to be discussed until you have formed a friendship.

In the case of depression, I admit, it’s trickier. Mental illnesses unfortunately do carry a stigma, and many people still don’t realize depression’s biological basis. (One of my favorite books on this topic is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.) For this reason, it is more of a second or third date issue, and should only be revealed in person, not by phone or e-mail.

As important as when you say it, is how you say it.

If you bring it up in an “oh-woe-is-me” and, therefore, “oh-woe-is-you” manner – any person with healthy self-boundaries will go running in the opposite direction. If you reveal your depression matter-of-factly, at a natural point in the conversation, you are doing all you can to be honest, giving him the freedom to choose, and giving yourself the gift of giving the relationship a chance.

Quandry, I know just from your short letter that you are a deeply thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent person. Take heart in the many gifts you can bring to a relationship, and focus on those. We are all b’tzelem Elohim – made in the godly image. It is our qualities, and not our deficiencies, that define us.

To ask The Matchmaker Rabbi a question, please email myrabbi@jdate.com.

Joysa Winter, aka The Matchmaker Rabbi, knows all about how hard it is to find lasting love. It took her 17 years to find Mr. Not Wrong! In that time, she tried just about every singles site, dating club and Matzah Ball known to humanity. Now in her fourth year of rabbinical school and the mother of 1.5 kids, nothing brings her greater joy than officiating a wedding. She is finishing a book on her dating adventures called Chasing Cupid, Tales of Dating Disaster in Jewish Suburbia. You can follow her on Twitter at @wanderinghebrew.

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One Comment »

  • ssamhope says:

    After living together for almost 7 months and discovering that the relationship cannot succeed any further. How do you approach the subject of parting for good?
    ssamhop

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