Sex After a Cancer Diagnosis Is Difficult, but Not Impossible

Health & Wellness
Reading Time: 6 mins
Publication Date: 02/28/2014

Written by Lorraine Kember

Having sex is a natural and important part of every loving couple’s relationship. Most take this for granted and could not imagine being robbed of this simple pleasure.

Sadly, this is exactly what happens to many people living with cancer or recovering from the disease. It can be extremely distressing for them and their loved one.

It was certainly upsetting for my husband Brian and me. We had been together for more than 30 years when he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. We had a very loving relationship, and good sex was a part of it.

Not long after his diagnosis, doctors prescribed morphine to control the pain he was experiencing. The powerful medication controlled his pain, but unfortunately, it also lowered his libido, and we were no longer able to enjoy sex as we had in the past.

Pain Medication Affected Our Intimacy

We both felt robbed. It seemed ironic to us that this should happen at such a sensitive time in our lives. With so little time left together, we wanted and needed to be as close to each other as possible.

Realizing that his pain medicine was causing this problem, Brian considered not taking it on certain days. I persuaded him not to do this for good reason: Despite missing our sexual intimacy, keeping Brian out of pain was my top priority.

I had found information on the Web about controlling chronic pain associated with mesothelioma. It helped me understand how important it was for Brian to continue taking his pain medication daily and regularly, as prescribed by his doctor.

Fortunately, Brian and I never had trouble communicating. We openly discussed how our inability to have sex affected us, and we were able to find other ways of expressing our love for each other.

Physical and Psychological Conditions Affecting Sex

The inability to experience sexual satisfaction, known as sexual dysfunction, is a complex issue and can be caused by physical and psychological conditions, including:

  • Cancer Treatment: The side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea, fatigue and a change in bowel habits can affect the sexual desire of both men and women. Chemotherapy treatment can also cause vaginal dryness in women, making intercourse painful. Radiation therapy has similar side effects to chemotherapy and can affect men and women in the same way. Depending on the type of cancer and the radiation treatment given, more serious side effects can occur. For example, radiation may change the lining in the uterus, making intercourse painful. Men who receive radiation in the genital area may have difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection.
  • Sadness: It’s not uncommon to experience feelings of sadness when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Sadness can sometimes lead to depression, which can make focusing on anything else, including sex, almost impossible.
  • Body Image: Cancer treatments, like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, can cause visible changes to a person’s body. Mastectomies leave behind physical and mental scars that could make some women feel unattractive or less feminine. It can also cause them anxiety about being naked in front of their partner.
  • Loss of Sensation: Some cancer treatments can desensitize the sex organs.
  • Loss of Libido: Strong medications like morphine, commonly used to treat cancer pain, can reduce the sex drive.
  • Anxiety: Embarrassment from the inability to maintain an erection because of the side effects of treatment, body scars or fear of becoming sick can cause men and women to cease all sexual activity.

Regardless of the reasons, the inability to have sex can be very upsetting for a loving couple. Though they may not realize it, sex is not the only thing they are missing. It is also the lack of close physical contact with their partner, and the wonderful feeling of being touched in a loving way.

When a couple holds hands or cuddles, it is their way of expressing, “I care about you. I want to be with you. I love you.” This much-needed intimacy is often more enjoyable than the sexual act itself.

There is no reason why couples should stop kissing, cuddling and caressing each other when sex is no longer possible, but sadly, this is often the case. This unfortunate situation can result in no intimacy at all, and the couple may feel alienated at a time when they need each other most.

Advice for Wives and Husbands of Cancer Patients

It’s important to understand that cancer has not changed who your loved one is. However, the experience of cancer has changed their body and sometimes their ability to physically express themselves in a way that you are both accustomed to.

Your partner’s reluctance to have sex does not necessarily mean they don’t love you. It’s common for people to lose interest in sex when they are coping with or recovering from cancer. Remember, your loved one is vulnerable and needs your love and reassurance more than ever.

Be patient and loving at all times. Hopefully, their desire for intimacy will return.

Here are some ways that you can help your loved one:

  • Communicate: Communication is the key to a happy relationship. Talk to your loved one honestly about your feelings. Question why they are reluctant to make love to you. It may surprise you.
  • Offer Help: Ask them if there is anything you can do to make them feel better. Be prepared to back your words with action.
  • Reassurance: Letting your partner know that you still find them attractive, regardless of scars or missing body parts, is vital and necessary for their mental and physical healing.
  • Romance: Make your loved one feel special, just like you did before their diagnosis. Treat them to chocolates, flowers or an intimate dinner for two.
  • Power of the Human Touch: Human touch is vital to the wellbeing of us all. It has been credited with slowing the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure and strengthening the immune system – it also feels good!
  • Making Love Without Sex: Making love is about letting someone know how much you love them and does not always need to involve sexual intercourse. Touch your partner lovingly whenever you get the chance. It will bring much relief and happiness to you both. When the need for sexual release occurs, it is possible to achieve without penetration. Be honest with each other about your needs. Kiss, cuddle and caress each other just like you did in the past, and let nature take its course.
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