Women, Cancer, & Sexuality
by Ralph and Barbara Alterowitz
After cancer, women often feel they have lost a significant part of themselves and their sexuality. Mourning is natural. Women need to learn ways to cope with this loss. But when mourning locks you in, when you let it act as a kind of emotional quicksand, it compounds the tragedy of loss. Many women feel that their cancer has not just changed their sense of self, but has damaged it.
As each woman struggles to adapt to changes in the way she looks and feels, she may also notice the lack of certain sexual feelings. Each woman needs to examine new ways of experiencing herself. She may need to find new ways to feel sexual pleasure with her partner, to change their sexual script. A first and critical step toward feeling sexual is to feel sensual.
Several years ago, when in Paris, we went into a café to get out of the rain and get a cup of wonderful French coffee. Since the place was half empty, we were fortunate enough to get a window table. As we looked out through the hypnotic, almost magical rain, we found ourselves watching one particular woman. Traffic was light, so she crossed the boulevard diagonally in our direction. We watched her as she came toward us. She walked slowly, almost regally.
A first and critical step toward feeling sexual is to feel sensual.
Ralph and Barbara Alterowitz
As our glance went from this woman to others, women of all ages, we became aware that they all had one characteristic in common. They exuded sensuality. They were not trying to be sexy. After all, they were just going through part of their daily routine. Yet despite being dressed for the rainy weather in raincoats or casual clothing, and not trying to impress anyone, they all had a special attraction. What came through clearly is that sensuality is, above all, a matter of attitude that carries over into bearing – the way a woman walks, the way she carries herself. It is the unique sense of you.
And how do you get there, to that special attitude? You open yourself up to the beauty of the world: the smell of flowers, the colors of a meadow, the feeling of a breeze on your skin, the touch of a child’s hand, the sound of birds singing, the taste of a fresh peach. They all remind you that you are still a part of this world, a part of its beauty and wonder. Your skin has a wonderful feel and smell of its own; your voice has its unique timbre; your limbs feel a certain way. There beside your partner, you feel the pleasure in different parts of your body as you move together. You inhale the smell of your lover’s body, touch and feel the texture of his or her skin, taste his lips, feel his arms around you.
It’s all about allowing yourself to move from feeling almost unconscious to feeling fully alive in the moment. Appropriately, living in the moment is also called mindfulness. That’s when you allow yourself to stop mentally swinging like a monkey from one thought to another. You are aware of yourself and of all that most closely surrounds you. It is a moment for getting to know yourself. That’s when you can feel sensual again – experiencing life fully with all your senses.
Moving back into the “now” with all your senses is an important part of moving from the negative, fear-driven way of life that often occurs during treatment to a positive, forward-looking way of life. It helps you move on. It helps you to become fully engaged with the world and your partner, adding meaning to intimate interactions. With your antennae tuned and your senses receptive, incoming signals help you to begin defining yourself positively.
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Ralph and Barbara Alterowitz are founders of the Center for Intimacy After Cancer Therapy, Inc., renewintimacy.org, and are certified as sexuality counselors by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.
Excerpted with permission from The Lovin’ Ain’t Over for Women with Cancer, by Ralph and Barbara Alterowitz, copyright © 2011 by Ralph and Barbara Alterowitz. All rights reserved. Published by CIACT, Inc. Publishing.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2012.