by Chelsea Holland, DHS, LPC, MS
Your sex life can be affected when any change happens in your life, and cancer is certainly no exception. However, whether your diagnosis is recent or long in the rear-view mirror, being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t disqualify you from having a satisfying sex life. It may be different from what it was before, but that doesn’t mean your sexuality is gone. To make the most of your sex life after cancer, keep in mind these three Ps of sexual intimacy.
1. Avoid the Pressure Mindset
Physical intimacy isn’t about a perfect, movie-quality performance. Unfortunately, many people believe this to be true because that’s what Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. Cue steamy movie scene where eyes lock from across the room, a lip-bruising kiss occurs, clothes are ripped off, and 60 seconds later the actors are lying beside each other sweaty and sighing with gratification. Is this realistic? No. Are real-life struggles like cancer ever even considered in these love scenes? Not typically.
You are a sexual being, and cancer will never take that away from you.
1. Pressure: Talk to your partner about removing intimacy expectations. Create a pact against all-or-nothing thinking and movie-performance expectations.
2. Pleasure: Write down a list of intimate activities you want on your pleasure buffet. When it comes to your intentional intimacy time, pick what you can say yes to right now, in whatever form that takes. This may change from week to week, and you can add to or remove anything from the list at any time.
3. Priority: Experiment with what helps you feel good and sexy throughout the day and with what helps transition your brain into pleasure mode.
If you try to live up to this unrealistic model of sex, then you are guaranteed to feel like a satisfying sex life is unreachable. With this pressure around what sex is “supposed” to look like, you may find yourself thinking, “I just don’t have the energy to go through the whole charade, so why even bother?” This can especially be the case when you are grappling with the ups and downs and all arounds of cancer.
It is essential for couples dealing with cancer to dump this perfectionist, all-or-nothing mindset that says sex just happens spontaneously, that intimacy is always effortless, and that circumstances like cancer and all its side effects can be easily put on the backburner any time sex is on the table. Not only does this way of thinking add tons of pressure when it comes to sexual intimacy, but it also limits your opportunities for intimate connection. It leaves no space for the many diverse ways in which couples can connect emotionally, physically, and sexually.
2. Focus on the Pleasure
When it comes to physical intimacy, you must throw the movie script out the window. It is not realistic. What is realistic – and wonderful – is the fact that the human body is a pleasure smorgasbord that offers abundant options for intimate connection. This is especially important to remember as you go through cancer, and beyond, because your sexual needs and how you experience pleasure will continually evolve. And when you shift your focus away from the pressure-fueled obligation to achieve orgasm every single time you become intimate and instead choose to focus on the pleasure of genuinely connecting with your partner, then intimacy can look however you want it to.
Simply ask yourself, What intimate activity can I say yes to today? Kissing on the couch? Exchanging sensual massages in bed? Offering your partner a genital caress? Enjoying a shower or bath together? Intimacy is a buffet of pleasure, and the possibilities are endless. Choose what works for you, where you are today. These activities certainly may include penetration or orgasm, but neither is required. And, no matter what pleasurable activity you choose, know that it doesn’t have to lead anywhere beyond simply enjoying the activity itself.
One of the most effective ways to prioritize your sexual self is to put sex on the calendar. I know, I know, it’s not what they do in the movies. But, remember, your life is not a movie.
3. Make Your Sexual Self a Priority
You are a sexual being, and cancer will never take that away from you. Yes, your sexuality may look different than it did before cancer, and your desires will likely evolve and change as you journey through this chapter of your life and beyond. But your sexuality will always be an important part of you. Keeping this part of you alive is essential
One of the most effective ways to prioritize your sexual self is to put sex on the calendar. I know, I know, it’s not what they do in the movies. But, remember, your life is not a movie. In the real world, where jobs and kids and cancer cause mayhem, we must eschew our expectations that things will just happen spontaneously. It is imperative to set aside time for sexual intimacy, and to make it a priority. Even if you don’t have a partner, setting time aside to feel sexual in your body and to connect with yourself sensually helps you to fulfill this natural, normal, and essential part of your being.
It is essential for couples dealing with cancer to dump this perfectionist, all-or-nothing mindset that says sex just happens spontaneously, that intimacy is always effortless, and that circumstances like cancer and all its side effects can be easily put on the backburner any time sex is on the table.
Once you set the time aside, you then need to be intentional. You can’t just show up and expect something to magically happen. Prepare yourself for your intentional intimate time by taking a few moments earlier in the day to do things that help you feel good about yourself. For example, exercise, getting out of your pajamas and putting on a flattering outfit, and eating healthy rather than stuffing yourself at dinnertime (say hello to feeling bloated and so not sexy).
Preparing also means transitioning from the regular part of your day into the intimate space by stimulating your mind, as the mind holds the key to sexual desire. To get into the pleasure mindset, try listening to sensual music; smoothing lotion on your body, slowly and intentionally; or reading erotic literature, either alone or with your partner.
Remember, a cancer diagnosis does not mean you have to say goodbye to your sex life. But, to make the most of your sexuality, it is important to embrace the changes brought on by cancer and to be intentional about prioritizing this vital part of your life. This includes asking your doctor about how your cancer diagnosis and treatment may affect you sexually and what you can do to mitigate these effects. With some patience and a little effort, you can keep your sex life alive and fulfilling, even after cancer has entered the picture.
Dr. Chelsea Holland is a sex and relationship therapist in Colorado. She has helped many individuals and couples find fulfilling intimacy by encouraging them to explore, embrace, and enhance their relationships and sexuality, while mitigating problems that may be hindering their fullest potential. You can read her blog and find her free “Oh Yeah!” sex guide at DrChelseaPage.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2019.