Cancer is one of the most challenging things a person can go through—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. During cancer treatment, your focus and that of your partner is naturally more on getting through treatment. You’re in the present, you’re dealing with really tough issues. You may not be prioritizing your relationship with your partner. That’s completely valid. You also may not be prepared for the changes in your life after treatment. While remission is a wonderful thing and should be celebrated, often your emotional cancer journey continues afterward.
Specifically, we’re talking about sex and intimacy after cancer. It’s often difficult for cancer patients to resume their lives as emotional and sexual beings. Even if you want to “snap back” and return to your lifestyle and relationship you had before cancer, it’s not always immediately possible. However, you absolutely can rebuild an emotionally and physically satisfying sex life after cancer.
Cancer and Sex: Issues to Consider Regarding Intimacy After Cancer
It’s important to remember that not all factors affecting sex and intimacy after cancer are mental and emotional. There are many different types of cancer treatments—often, they have lasting effects. This is why we encourage speaking to your doctor about physical concerns regarding sex and intimacy, ideally as soon as possible. It’s valid for you to be concerned about this aspect of your life, and this should be factored into your post-treatment plan. Being happy with your sex life affects your emotional health in a big way. And in turn, your emotional health is key to your “long game” regarding cancer.
Keep in mind too, when you work with a sex therapist, your therapist can help develop a plan that corresponds with the instructions given by your doctors. In some cases, doctors and sex therapists work together to address the needs of their patients; cancer and sex are not mutually exclusive! You have flexibility here, andevery patient’s needs are unique. The most important thing is that you don’t feel alone, and feel validated in seeking a satisfying sex life after cancer. This is a problem confronted by people of all genders and demographics.
In fact, a survey at an oncology clinic revealed that 87% of patients indicated an impact on their sexual function following cancer treatment. However, only 27.9% of the surveyed patients reported that they’d been asked by their doctors about their sexual health. It’s not that you can’t come back from sexual dysfunction after cancer—it’s that you need to know how to come back. And sometimes, you just need some extra help. That’s where options like therapy and corresponding solutions come into play.
Responding to a Loss of Sexual Desire After Cancer
It’s undeniable that many people report physical symptoms following cancer treatment that impact their sex lives. Certain antidepressants and commonly prescribed painkillers can affect one’s sexual function. Problems like performance issues, vaginal spasms or discomfort, and general pain can potentially be addressed through medications or pelvic floor physical therapy. However, often medications aren’t effective on their own. This can be because people feel self-conscious following their cancer treatments, worried about changes in their appearances, and at times traumatized.
Sex therapists may address these issues with:
• Cognitive behavioral therapy. Even if you’ve tried cognitive behavioral therapy in the past, it may be wise to pursue it with a sex therapist specifically, addressing sexual health concerns in a targeted way. Additionally, keep in mind that therapy is never something you have to do alone. Your partner may have their own trauma that’s affecting their sexual desires and function. Going to therapy together, in itself, could be quite helpful, as well as a bonding experience.
• Sensate focus. This technique involves touching exercises which you and your partner will complete in a sequenced manner. You’ll receive guidance from your therapist, which may make the experience feel much less intimidating. The point of sensate focus is touching without expectation or pressure. Ideally, you won’t feel pressured to do anything, sexual or otherwise. You’ll think more about the texture you feel while touching, the temperatures you experience—versus moving towards a “goal”. This is an exercise recommended by many sex therapists, as it allows you to be in the moment with your partner, or simply in your own mind. By the way: sensate focus does not begin with intimate touching. You and your therapist can discuss your limits and timeline—and that of your partner, of course.
• Mindfulness. You may hear your therapist discuss “mindfulness”. While it sounds simple in theory, it can have a major impact on your sex life. There’s a level of radical acceptance that comes with mindfulness. Your therapist will guide you as you acknowledge your feelings, your thoughts, and your physical sensations. It’s about being truly present. While this can be challenging at points, you may feel liberated by the fact that mindfulness is not about striving towards a specific goal or pushing yourself to feel “better”. The last thing we want when working on sex and intimacy is to make you feel pushed or forced.
• Communication techniques. You and your partner may love each other and want to return to an intimate, romantic sex life after cancer. However, you may still struggle with communication. Remember, a sex therapist may want to work with your partner too, and with good reason. Your partner may experience a shift in their role during your cancer treatment—in many cases, moving from partner to caregiver, even if temporarily. Communication is key to addressing these changes, and your therapist can help you and your partner develop new techniques to communicate better.
There’s Hope for Your Sex Life After Cancer
We want to validate your feelings—there isn’t an easy, quick way to bounce back after cancer. While there’s a lot to celebrate in achieving remission and other milestones, you’re allowed to have mixed feelings and to be intimidated about life moving forward. Additionally, sexual dysfunction after cancer is not limited to those who’ve experienced gynecological or urological cancers. Any form of cancer, like other physically and psychologically traumatic events, can impact your sex life.
Oncologists are sometimes so focused on treating your cancer that they not be able to attend to the experiences you’ll have after treatment. That’s understandable—and it’s understandable for you and your partner to focus on getting past treatment, with thoughts about your life afterward being “saved for later”.
But just because you’re not certain about your sex life after cancer doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. It’s never too late to address sex and intimacy. There may be changes; but a sex life that is altered after cancer can still be valuable—and great!
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Tiffini is a relationship and sex therapist who practices in Virginia and Florida. She is committed to seeing her community transform through the healing of relationships. She empowers her clients by equipping them with the necessary tools to build healthy, vulnerable relationships.