When you or your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of normalcy in many areas of your lives – including intimacy.
While it may seem trivial to be concerned about maintaining a healthy sex life when you or your partner’s health and livelihood are so uncertain, having conversations with your partner about sex during this time is important for maintaining a healthy relationship.
From a woman’s perspective:
A cancer diagnosis can complicate how a woman feels about sex just as much (if not more than) how the diagnosis complicates what she is physically able to do.
“At times, women will not admit they have personal concerns about their sexuality,” Dr. Swain says. “Instead, they express concerns for their partner and focus on how the diagnosis and their altered ability to perform sexually will affect their relationship.”
Aside from how a woman may feel after an initial diagnosis, many women also have concerns about what sex will look like for them going forward. Sexuality can be impacted minimally or drastically, and this is not just restricted to the location of the cancer. Adjusting to the emotional and physical scars from treatment may induce feelings of self-consciousness and even grief for what they once had or looked like.
“Beauty depicted in the media doesn’t have patchy hair loss, scars or colostomy bags," says Dr. Swain. "This can make women feel self-conscious about their own bodies, and it can be difficult for them to feel beautiful in their new normal, even if it's temporary.”
From a man’s perspective:
For men, there are various instances of how a cancer diagnosis can affect sexual function and intimacy, including lack of arousal, erectile dysfunction or the inability to achieve orgasm. And much like women, men also face self-consciousness because of body changes as well as changes in what they can and cannot do sexually.
“Men tend to feel a large sense of guilt,” Dr. Dabaja says. “Guilt that they are ignoring their partner’s sexual needs, guilt that they can’t perform like they used to, and even guilt for wanting to be sexually active in a time when they’re dealing with a much larger issue.”
How partners can help:
It's important to be open and supportive, and try to understand what your partner is going through.
“The more pressure you place on your partner, the more difficult it will be for your partner to perform, Dr. Dabaja says. “It also makes it tough to focus on treatment and healing.”
It is also necessary to be honest and open about what you’re feeling. Talk to your partner about your needs and how you can work together. Ignoring these needs may cause resentment between you two in the future.
Dr. Swain advises partners to understand the “pull away.”
“A loved one with cancer is going through extremely difficult challenges," she says. "He or she may pull away from affection and attention for a variety of reasons: They might not feel well or they might feel self-consciousness. They might feel like they are a burden or they might feel like they are pitied."
And while it can be frightening and uncomfortable, Dr. Swain says partners should be deliberate in seeing their loved one: Don't avoid looking at the scars, volunteer to help with bandages, and ask questions about what’s happening to them. These tactics can help your partner feel supported and comfortable with the changes happening to their body.
Both Dr. Swain and Dr. Dabaja agree that what intimacy looks like for each couple is unique to them.
For some couples, being able to cuddle on the couch and watch a movie is intimate. For others, having sexual intercourse is intimate. Each couple is different, and it’s important to outline what intimacy means for you and your partner and go from there.
And while the definition of intimacy may drastically change after a cancer diagnosis, there are many ways to stay intimate that don’t involve sex. Holding hands, talking on the phone, making plans to watch a movie, or even simply hugging are all ways to maintain a physical and emotional connection to your partner during this tumultuous time.
If you or a loved one has cancer and you want to speak with someone about intimacy or other issues related to the diagnosis, there are resources to help. Call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or visit henryford.com/cancer.
Dr. Monique Swain is an obstetrics and gynecology surgeon who specializes in women at high risk for breast cancer. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center -- New Center One in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
Dr. Ali Dabaja is a urologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Dearborn and Sterling Heights, at Henry Ford Reproductive Medicine in Troy, and at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and West Bloomfield.