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


Intimacy and Sex After Cancer Treatment

Problems with intimacy and sexual dysfunction are common in persons who have had certain health problems, physical disabilities, surgery and other medical treatments. Surgeries, chemo, and radiation can be extremely disruptive for both partners within a relationship.

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). 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.

Cancer 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 imagine.

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 satisfying intimacy and sex and to learn new paths to pleasure. It will take new communication skills to navigate the challenges of healing and recovery.

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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.

Tips for Patients and their Partners

  1. Make room in your schedule for frequent intimate time with your partner. Intimacy promotes healing physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  2. Honest, on-going communication with caregivers, family, and your partner is essential. Continue to ask questions and seek information, no matter how embarassing or silly the questions may seem.
  3. 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 are feeling vulnerable and broken. Speak up, ask for what you want, and take more risks to share your feelings honestly, no matter how difficult.
  4. Learn mindfulness skills: how to quiet your mind and soothe yourself and how to live in the present moment. Deeply satisfying intimacy grows out of being fully present.
  5. Let 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 curious about 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 spiritually, and to explore whatever touch feels good. Go slow. Breathe.
  6. 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.
  7. Be gentle with yourself and your partner. Give yourselves a break whenever needed, but don't give up.
  8. Get help and support—you don't have to do this alone. Call me—I am familiar with these issues and I can help you bring satisfying intimacy and sex back into your life.

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