Intimacy and Sexuality after a Cancer Diagnosis
by Shannon Solie, LMHC
As a mental health therapist, I work with people who are trying to rediscover their sexual selves after a cancer diagnosis. Everyone I see has one thing in common – they are hungry for connection. It’s a basic human need, but one that is often overlooked in healthcare settings.
One way that people can find connection is through intimacy. Intimacy is an emotional or physical connection that is shared between two people. Intimacy is often intertwined with sexuality, which is the sexual interest, attraction, desire, and ability to have erotic experiences and responses. However, it’s important to know that you can have intimacy apart from sex. This is especially significant for cancer survivors because, sometimes, cancer and its treatment can produce physiological setbacks that do not allow for a fully erotic experience. Yet, under these circumstances, intimacy is still possible.
The best way to foster intimacy in your relationship is through small, loving gestures like holding hands, gazing into your partner’s eyes, sensual kissing, cuddling, and even exercising together. Now, you may be saying, that’s all well and good – but what about those of us who want more? Well, you should know that, while you’re in the sexual rebuilding stage, intimacy is a key part of recovering your sexuality.
Too often I see people “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and forgo intimacy just because sex isn’t happening. Imagine this scenario. You are motivated, you make time, you set up a sensual environment, clothes come off, intimacy is built, and then pain arises – perhaps a touch that brushes over a scar – then you start to become self-conscious, you’re in your head, and often what comes next is a shut down. Your mind and body are flooded with complex emotions, your clothes go back on, and everyone moves on and pretends nothing happened. Or worse, a fight ensues. When this happens, you’re essentially tossing intimacy aside once sex is no longer on the table. In these moments, you can release the sexual pressure by focusing on intimacy rather than sex. Forget about sexual touch for the moment and cuddle instead, or whatever you feel like doing that allows you to remain intimately connected.
After cancer, many factors change your ability to have the sex you once had. But sexuality is still possible.
Once you’ve begun to restore intimacy in your relationship, you can start to work on sexuality. Recovering your sexuality requires deeper nuance. After cancer, many factors change your ability to have the sex you once had. But sexuality is still possible. Here are some concrete steps you can take to get your groove back after a cancer diagnosis.
• Share your experience. Reach out, and be open to exploration and communication. Talk about your sexual struggles with a healthcare provider you trust. If that person can’t answer your questions, they can help you find support and resources, and can put you in touch with someone who can help.
• Learn about your body. Everyone’s body changes throughout their lifespan, and cancer survivors sometimes experience sudden and drastic changes during and after cancer treatment. Spend time exploring your body and seeing what is different. Ask yourself: What did desire look like before diagnosis? What does it look like now? Explore your erogenous zones. Have they changed after cancer? Do you have areas that have become no-touch zones? When you’re comfortable, share this newfound body knowledge with your partner.
Now is a good time to explore your beliefs about sex and sexuality and examine whether having cancer has changed how you feel.
• Figure out what sexuality means to you. We all have socialized beliefs of what it means to be sexual. Now is a good time to explore your beliefs about sex and sexuality and examine whether having cancer has changed how you feel. For example, have you always thought that sexual satisfaction can only come from certain sexual acts? Many of us are taught that the only way to enjoy sex is through penetration. However, penetrative sex isn’t always possible after cancer treatment, as side effects from certain treatments can affect sexual function. But this doesn’t mean you have to give up on experiencing sexual intimacy and pleasure. Vibrators, manual stimulation, oral sex, and prosthetics are all options you can explore. How open are you to rewriting your sexual script and creating new pathways for sexual intimacy?
• Do the work to cultivate intimacy with your partner. When it comes to relationship problems, what was present before cancer will be present after, and probably exacerbated. So, if you struggled with intimacy before you were diagnosed with cancer, those same issues will likely be there after – and may even be magnified. The reverse is also true. Couples who had a strong relationship before cancer will generally see this carry on through treatment, despite the hurdles they may face. No matter which end of the spectrum your relationship falls on, you will still need to work to create or maintain intimacy in your relationship. You may even want to consider meeting with a therapist who specializes in helping couples overcome barriers to sexual intimacy after treatment. Together, you can set small goals for intimacy and actively work toward them.
• Don’t forget joy and play. I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping joy and playfulness in your relationship during stressful times. While restoring sexual intimacy after cancer does require some work, don’t get so focused on meeting certain goals that you forget to have fun along the way. Do something silly that is out of your comfort zone, laugh, dance, play, just enjoy each other. When you allow yourself to be in the moment, you take the pressure off sexual performance and free yourself to enjoy intimacy with your partner.
Shannon Solie is a therapist in private practice specializing in sexuality, gender, and medical life transitions in Seattle, WA. Shannon has taught classes and workshops for survivors and medical practitioners for the past decade and continues to work for the inclusion of sexual health and minority communities as imperative components of quality of life research and conversations. Learn more at shannonsolietherapy.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2017.