Brier Jirka is a sex therapist with the Methodist Physicians Clinic Women’s Center. She blogs every other Tuesday for livewellnebraska.com
When a woman receives a cancer diagnosis, her mind starts racing 100 mph to places unknown. Thoughts about treatment, family and work responsibilities, body image changes and finances begin to occupy every minute of the day with no concrete answers.
Sex and intimacy, though perhaps not the first thing we think of, also weighs heavily on a woman’s mind. And with such a personal and “taboo” topic, it can feel like there is no one to talk to. Many women feel like their primary care physician or oncologist just won’t understand, or maybe they’re too embarrassed to ask the questions.
Getting to a good place sexually or intimately can be a challenge for many patients, no matter where they are in the recovery or treatment process.
And let’s be clear: Sex and intimacy are two very different things. Sex is physical, the activities themselves. Intimacy is the connection side of the coin and can be mental, physical and/or sexual.
Physical challenges can include:
- Body changes due to surgery
- Skin texture changes
- Lubrication or arousal changes
- Delayed to absent orgasm
Psychological challenges can include:
- Body image
- Relationship changes
The first step is discussing a cancer patient’s sex or intimacy goals. We determine where they are and where they want to be. If and when appropriate, we’ll include their partner in the discussions, too. In fact, we often forget that a cancer diagnosis can be difficult on not just the patient, but to the significant other as well. I’ve met many patients’ spouses who felt they were never asked how they were coping, if they had questions about their role in recovery or if they were feeling frustrated or uncertain. These are all conversations that can help a partner feel included in treatment and recovery. Here a few topics we start with in the therapy process:
- The importance of communication
- Expressing each other’s desires
- The couple’s concerns regarding the cancer diagnosis
- Insecurities associated with cancer
- Psychological issues like stress, body image and depression
When you’re in the midst of treatment or have successfully completed the process, it can be difficult to get back in the swing of things with your partner. So many changes have come about during these phases. Here are a few basic, but effective, ideas to get you started.
- Plan date nights – get out of the house and remember why you fell in love.
- Set aside time to reconnect physically and emotionally.
- Start with simple intimacy approaches like touching, cuddling, holding hands, kissing or dancing.
Once you and your partner feel comfortable, take your intimacy to the next level. The ultimate goal of therapy for a cancer patient is to establishing a better quality of life. It may be different than life before the diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as enjoyable or better.
Getting there can take time and energy, but with good communication and a few helpful hints, a couple can return to the sex and intimacy they remember and deserve.