Cancer and Intimacy

Sexuality plays an important role in society, facilitates reproduction, and helps us to feel connected to our partner as well as to ourselves. When you are told that you have cancer, it can affect the desire of either or both partners. For some people, desire decreases (as they are distracted and not in the mood), while for others physical intimacy may sooth or provide welcome distraction.

Cancer therapies can affect sexuality in many ways. Qualitatively, your routine sexual act may need to be adapted due to anatomical changes (e.g. pelvic or breast surgeries) or functional changes (e.g. erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness or scarring). Quantitatively, the frequency and duration of sexual acts may change, usually lessening. Reasons for the latter can be due to the experience of pain, discomfort, shame, or guilt, but also because one’s desire may be decreased when going through premature menopause/andropause, anxiety, or depression.

Oftentimes, I see couples, whether in brand-new or long-lasting relationships, in which I sense that both partners are longing for a connection but are not communicating about this out of concern for disrespecting or hurting the other. Finding a safe environment for this communication may help healing to begin. Also, it may encourage a cancer survivor to feel confident enough to talk with a health care provider to find if there is anything that can be done to improve matters.

There are medications and devices that can improve, if not resolve, anatomic/functional deficits. (As a gentle reminder, hormone replacement therapy is not an option for those who are survivors of tumors that are fueled by hormones.) Talk- and/or pill-therapy can emotionally support partners.

However, at the end of the day some things may not be fully restored to the pre-diagnostic state. Some emotional and physical scarring may be permanent. In these situations, partners may have to work harder and be more creative in finding ways to connect with each other in ways that are enjoyable, pleasurable, and satisfying for both. In addition to intimacy, identity and security can also be altered by cancer. Therefore, even couples who have been together for a long time may need to reset and rekindle their relationships. Keep in mind that sexuality is one form of physical intimacy. You may want to explore other forms of physical intimacy, such as sensuality and eroticism.

There are many other ways of being intimate that can enhance or compensate for the impaired ability to connect physically. Examples of these alternative forms of intimacy are emotional (connecting with someone else in spoken or unspoken ways that express your love), intellectual (participating in communication about a topic that both parties are passionate about), and experiential (sharing activities and making memories together).

Enjoy connecting!

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Learn & Think, Live & Feel:

My family decided to go all in. For years we have held ourselves back due to various issues including active or anticipated medical issues. Recently, we decided to get some more love in our house. A month ago, we expanded our family to include our beloved cat, Melky. In another month, we will be expanding again with a dog, Cookie. We are fully aware that having a pet may bring more responsibilities, worries, and expenses, so we have backup plans in place, but we do not want to miss out anymore on the therapeutic joy pets can bring. Stay tuned for our adventures!

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