and Sex After Cancer Treatment
with intimacy and sexual dysfunction are common in persons who have had
problems, physical disabilities, surgery and other medical
treatments. Surgeries, chemo, and radiation can be extremely disruptive
for both partners within a relationship.
studies have found that at least 60% of people who have been treated
for cancer experience problems with sex (some studies have found much
higher rates). Medical caregivers often fail
to discuss potential sexual difficulties, and when patients experience
problems they may be too embarressed to ask for help or may believe
that nothing can be done to restore intimacy and sex. The result is
that only about 20% of people who have been treated for cancer report
that they received the help they needed with sex and intimacy problems.
treatments bring physical changes to the
patient's body, which may change the appearance and/or function of some
areas of their body, including their sexual organs. Loss of desire is
common and can be a direct result of treatment. The patient's emotional
reactions to these changes can include grief, anger, embarrassment,
shame, depression, performance anxiety, and low self-esteem. Patients
may struggle with negative body image; feeling unattractive,
undesirable, and unloveable. Any of these emotional factors can
increase the patient's
vulnerability and fears about intimacy and sex, and, as a result, they
may hide their feelings and pull away from their loved ones. These
reactions can worsen low desire, increase pain, and, in men may
increase problems with
erectile dysfunction (ED).
After experiencing frustrating, uncomfortable, or
painful attempts to
have sexual intercourse, many patients
give up trying to find any kind of sexual pleasure. In cases where
surgery or radiation has damaged sensitive tissue or organs, or where
surgery has removed tissue or organs,
regaining sexual function may seem hopeless. There may be times when
patients feel too tired, too broken, too vulnerable to ask for the love
and intimacy they desparately need.
Yes, cancer and other illnesses can turn your world
upside down and threaten
everything you hold dear. Yes, the path to healing will present
huge frustrations, difficult changes, and painful losses. However,
there is hope because
our bodies and brains have a
surprising ability to adapt to changes and to heal in ways we cannot
There is an old
saying that the most important sex organ is the brain. This is so true
in the recovery of intimacy and sex
because deeply satisfying experiences of intimacy and physical pleasure
are not limited by the performance of our sex organs. For most of us
(whether we have had cancer or not), it takes re-education to let go of
beliefs and habits that block our ability to experience
intimacy and sex and to learn new paths to pleasure. It will take new
communication skills to navigate the challenges of healing and
Cancer and cancer treatments impact all of the systems
that make up a
person: physiological, biochemical, social, emotional, and spiritual.
Therefore, recovery requires a combination of resources that can heal
all parts of the person. Different resources may be needed at different
stages of recovery.
for Patients and their Partners
- Make room in your schedule for frequent intimate time
with your partner. Intimacy promotes healing physically, emotionally,
- Honest, on-going communication with caregivers,
your partner is essential. Continue to ask questions and seek
matter how embarassing or silly the questions may seem.
- Learn new communication skills. Average skills will
not get you through
the tough times. It will take courage and trust to reach out when you
feeling vulnerable and broken. Speak up, ask for what you want, and
take more risks
share your feelings honestly, no
matter how difficult.
- Learn mindfulness skills: how to quiet your mind and
yourself and how to live in the present moment. Deeply satisfying
intimacy grows out of being fully present.
go of pre-conceptions. The biggest barrier to pleasure is our
thinking—not our sexual organs. Explore intimacy and sex
from the perspective of a beginner's mind. Be open and
new ways to experience intimacy and pleasure. Let go of agendas. For
now, take sexual
intercourse (penetrative sex) and orgasms off your agenda. Give
yourself permission to be present in the moment, to connect emotionally
and to explore whatever touch feels good. Go slow. Breathe.
- Give yourself permission to grieve your losses.
Grieving is different for each individual. It takes time and goes at
its own pace—it cannot be rushed—there are no short-cuts. Some grieving
is solitary, but some can be shared with loved ones.
- Be gentle with yourself and your partner. Give
yourselves a break whenever needed, but don't
- Get help and support—you don't have to do
this alone. Call me—I am familiar with these issues and I can
satisfying intimacy and sex back into your life.