Should I start a relationship with someone who has a terminal illness?

Dear Alice,

I recently met this guy who is amazing. We get along very well. I really like him, and I would love to have a relationship with him, but I found out that he has pancreatic cancer and only has three to five years to live. I just really don't know what to do. I think it would be considered screwing myself over by getting emotionally involved with someone who is going to die soon. But, I also feel for him, and I think everyone should have a chance at love. What should I do?

Dear Reader,

Sometimes it seems like it'd be nice to have a crystal ball that could tell us what the future held and where relationships would lead. Unfortunately, no one has invented such a device, and we're left to wonder about what lies ahead, weighing the pros and cons of potential paths.

You mention thinking that everyone deserves a chance at love, and presumably you want to offer this guy a chance. You might want to think about what you want from the relationship; forming a relationship that's just for the other person's good probably isn't sustainable.

What are your priorities in a relationship? What might a relationship with him offer you? Settling down to start a family may not be a fair expectation of the relationship, but the relationship might offer love, fun, support, and opportunities to learn about yourself and someone else. Does the relationship have to be romantic? Maybe you could develop a loving friendship. If you believe in fate, might there be a reason you met him?

It's often difficult to gauge medical prognoses and health. What is his quality of life likely to be like for the three to five years he was given to live? Is there a chance he may live much longer? How would you feel about taking care of him if he were very ill for a long period of time? The National Cancer Institute's Pancreatic Cancer Home Page offers more information, as well as links to support for people living with cancer and their loved ones.

Are you someone who lives more in the present than in the future? Is there somewhere in particular you want to be in five years, or is it more critical to think about what is meaningful to you right now? Neither way is necessarily better, but if you're someone who likes to plan ahead, it might be helpful to think about how this relationship might impact your other plans: work, education, family, relationships.

Different people and cultures have different attitudes toward death and dying. For some it is scary and sad, something to be hidden or avoided. Others focus on death as a natural part of life — something people can embrace and use as a chance for reflection and celebration of the life of someone they love. What are your feelings about death? This relationship might offer you new perspectives and a chance to challenge and explore your relationship with death itself.

It does seem tough emotionally to develop a relationship with someone, only to lose them (at least physically) soon after. If you do decide to be together, you may want to think about how you can get extra support for yourself, such as from a counselor or support group. If you decide not to pursue a romantic relationship, maybe this guy could still be a part of your life. You might be sources of inspiration, affection, support, and learning for one another through difficult and happy times whether or not you're romantic partners.

Last updated Jun 23, 2015
Originally published Oct 27, 2006