Let’s Talk About Sex (During Cancer Treatment), Baby

Intimacy During Cancer Treatment | The Silver Pen

Let’s Talk About Sex (During Cancer Treatment), Baby

In the midst of a cancer diagnosis, treatment, or recovery, intimacy can easily slip to the bottom of the priority list (if it makes it on the list at all!). I know that this was the case for me. As a bald skeleton, the last thing in the world that I wanted to think about was sexual intimacy. Ewwwww.

However, what I now know for sure (and wish that I had known then!) is that it is critical to realize the powerful and vital role that our intimate sexual relationships play when dealing with stress and receiving support. For many cancer patients, their sexual desire declines significantly due to treatment side effects such as pain, nausea, and weakness (YEP! YEP! & YEP!).

The reality is that many cancers not only impair the physical act of sex such as blocking orgasms, impairing erections, causing dryness, pain, or simply making one exhausted, they also may cause a significant loss of self-esteem. To add insult to injury, treatment side effects such as weight loss or gain, hair loss, skin changes or scaring, and surgical scars are all physical changes to the body that may cause feelings of unattractiveness or shame. All of this happened to me. UGH. What I didn’t realize, however, is that these intense emotions can spiral into long-term problems such as depression and anxiety, which further result in the continuing decrease of sexual desire. In other words, it is a yucky spiral downward.

Despite the confusion and challenge of understanding and dealing with cancer, the truth is that sexual intimacy is important through out the process. The Silver Lining is that it allows one to feel love and support. This kind of physical sharing is crucial in a time when support from a significant other is needed most. Intimacy also serves as a wonderful distraction from a world that may seem too hard to handle at times. In other words, it is normal. 

Please learn from me (i.e., my mistakes): It really and truly is best to NOT put sexual intimacy on the back burner during cancer. Rather, prioritize it to stay close and truly connected to your loved one.

Here are some of my tips for Building Intimacy During Cancer Treatment:

  • Communication with your partner. Like so many other illnesses, dealing with problems of sexuality requires communication. Talking about sex can be very difficult and may even be a bit embarrassing. However, good communication with your partner will allow you to understand each other’s needs and preferences allowing you to adjusting your sexual routine accordingly.
  • Validate each other’s feelings. It is very likely that your partner feel helpless, fearful, or unsure of how to support you through out treatments. It is important to listen to your partner and their feelings, without being judgmental or dismissive. Try to understand their concerns and fears and acknowledge that you understand their point of view. By working together and enhancing your communication and closeness with your partner, your relationship can flourish in the face of cancer.
  • Don’t be afraid to make adjustments. For some cancer patients, sex is not possible. There are many other ways in which sexual pleasure can be given and received. Keep an open mind about ways to feel sexual pleasure. Kissing, touching, massaging, talking, and holding hands are all forms of intimacy, which can result in sexual pleasure. Pleasure and satisfaction are possible even if some aspects of your sexual routine must be changed due to cancer.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about sex.  Although it may be an uncomfortable discussion, it is important for you to communicate with your doctor about your sex life. They will be able to clear up any concerns regarding sex during or after treatment, as well as the side effects of treatment on your sexual function.
  • Boost your self-esteem. Remind yourself that cancer does not make you any less of a man or woman. There are many amazing qualities that you have which make you, you. Two of the biggest self-esteem boosters are exercise and good nutrition. Getting healthy in other areas will increase your energy and improve your mood, further stimulating sexual desire.

* Photo Credit: Elizabeth Messina (of course!)

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  1. says

    Great tips. It's so nice to see this topic being covered across the internet. We have a blog series over on our page around intimacy called "The Side Effect No One Talks About" which has loads of information, too. :)

  2. Therese HUghes says

    I am an OB/Gyne in the Chicago area and I love your emails. I unfortunately have to deal with cancer, especially breast cancer, WAY too often- I read this email and one of the most common problems my patients have is vaginal dryness. Although we sometimes treat this problem with Estrogen cream, this can't be used with my Breast cancer patients- in the past I have recommended Replens, Coconut Oil- However, I learned a new trick this week from one of my patients- On Amazon, you can purchase Vitamin E vaginal suppositories- 24 of them are on $7- my patient only uses 1/2 of one- so that is 48 for $7- so I am definitely passing this tip onto my patients especially my Breast cancer patients. Actually, my postmenopausal patients who are still sexually active find that Estrogen cream can be VERY expensive- around $100 for 1 tube and NOT covered on Medicare- so Its a good tip for them too!
    Therese Hughes, M.D.

  3. says

    Wow, it has been awhile since I left a comment. I want to start by saying how proud I am of you and how much I loved the book. It was amazing. i am waiting for the sequel, the real life after cancer :) On the sex part. I think it is so important to keep the intimacy. We can't let cancer take that away but so challenging when you have no hair or boobs. Thank God for my husband's ability to see past all of that. My oncologist is rather funny about this topic, of all the questions he asks me at check ups he sometimes checks in on that front. Priorities, hmmm. I think it is worth the effort and healing to make this happen.


    • silverpen says

      Thank you SO MUCH, Jennifer! Great to hear from you again. Thank you also for your reflection. xx