Life Coach - Dr. John Arnaldi - Land O Lakes FL

 

Intimacy and Sex After Cancer Treatment

Serious illness impacts all areas of a person’s life and can put overwhelming stress on dating and relationships. Illness and treatment can impair intimacy and sex.

For example, recent 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). Often, medical professionals do not invite or encourage discussion of relationship or sexual difficulties. When patients experience problems they may be too embarrassed 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.

Cancer treatments bring physical changes to a 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. In cases where surgery,chemotherapy, or radiation has damaged sensitive tissue or organs, or where surgery has removed tissue or organs, regaining sexual function may seem hopeless.

Emotional reactions to these changes can include grief, anger, shame, embarrassment, depression, performance anxiety, and low self-esteem. People often struggle with negative body image and feel unattractive, undesirable, and unlovable. These feelings can increase the patient's vulnerability and fears about intimacy and sex. As a result, they may pull back from their partners, or if single, may avoid dating. These reactions can contribute to decreased desire, increased pain, and erectile dysfunction (ED).

There may be times when people feel too tired, broken, or vulnerable to ask for the love and intimacy they need. They may begin to believe that distance is less stressful than closeness. And after experiencing frustrating, uncomfortable, or painful attempts to have sexual intercourse, many people give up trying to find any kind of sexual pleasure.

Illness can turn your world upside down and threaten everything you hold dear. At times, 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 imagine. We are resilient.

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 satisfying 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 will take re-education to let go of beliefs and habits that block our ability to experience satisfying intimacy and to learn new paths to pleasure. It will take new communication skills to navigate the challenges of healing and recovery.

Cancer and cancer treatments impact all of the systems that make up a person: physiological, biochemical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Recovery requires a combination of resources that can heal all parts of the person. Different resources may be needed at different stages of recovery.

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Tips for Patients and their Partners

  1. Schedule frequent quality time with your partner. You need time to be together with no expectations, judgments, or distractions. Quality time fosters intimacy, which is an important resource for healing. Intimacy can include feelings of affection, closeness, comfort, belonging, understanding, connection, togetherness, and nurturing. It may or may not include spiritual, romantic, and/or sexual feelings. It may or may not include spoken words, comforting touch (like holding hands), sensual touch, erotic touch, and/or sexual activities. Be honest, specific, and clear about your what you want and don’t want. Give yourself permission to revise at any time. It’s always okay to say “no.”

  2. Update your communication skills. Average skills will not get you through the tough times. It will take courage and trust to reach out when you are feeling vulnerable. Speak up, ask for what you want, and take more risks to share your feelings honestly, no matter how difficult. You have a right to your feelings—to feel whatever you are feeling, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says.

  3. Learn meditation and mindfulness skills. Learn how to quiet your mind and soothe yourself and how to live in the present moment. Get quiet and just breathe. Satisfying intimacy grows out of being fully present.

  4. Let go of expectations and agendas. The biggest barrier to pleasure is our thinking—not our body or our sexual organs. Spend time alone getting to know your body as it is now. Be open and curious about new ways to feel pleasure alone and with your partner. For now, take sexual intercourse (penetrative sex) and orgasms off your agenda. Focus on intimacy—give yourself permission to be present in the moment, to connect emotionally and spiritually, and to explore whatever touch feels good. Everything is an experiment. Go slow. Breathe.

  5. 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. Some grieving is solitary, but some can be shared with loved ones.

  6. Be gentle with yourself and your partner. Give yourself and your partner a break whenever needed, but don't give up. Be kind to yourself.

  7. Continue to ask questions and seek help. Don’t let embarrassment stop you. Get all of the help and support you need. Talk with professionals who understand these issues—they can help you bring satisfying intimacy and sex back into your life.

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More Resources
Dating After Cancer
Articles and Booklets on Relationships After Cancer
Websites for Information and Support

 


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