Talking About Mesothelioma and Sex with Your Partner

Older Couple Discussing Sex

Human sexual feelings and behaviors are complex and strongly influenced by emotional and physical factors.

A mesothelioma diagnosis can affect a person’s body image, sexual functioning, relationships, identity and self-esteem. Various treatment options can potentially affect libido and sexual function to a certain extent.

A good place to start understanding how the asbestos-related disease and its treatments affect your sex life is asking your doctor.

When patients and their partners are knowledgeable about how mesothelioma and its treatments can influence their intimacy and sex life, they may be able to talk to each other and manage those challenges.

In addition to treatments, side effects caused by the illness or therapies, such as fatigue and stress, may impact a patient and caregiver’s capacity to enjoy sex.

Stress

Over the last several decades, research in the field of sexology (the study of sexuality and sexual function) has demonstrated that stress can negatively affect one’s desire and ability to have sex.

Living with a mesothelioma diagnosis is stressful for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Uncertainty of the future
  • Financial strain
  • Medical bills
  • Fear of pain or death
  • Worrying about loved ones

When our bodies are chronically stressed, they produce too much cortisol — a stress hormone known to suppress sex drive and, at times, our normal ability to engage in sex. The condition can manifest as erectile dysfunction in men and painful intercourse in women.

Fatigue

People with mesothelioma often report feeling tired.

Surgery and chemotherapy cause fatigue and tiredness for many reasons. Our body heals most effectively while we sleep and rest. We feel fatigue so we are forced to take it easy and allow our body to heal.

Recovering from mesothelioma treatment occurs at a cellular level and our body prioritizes cell repair over giving us energy to perform other normal activities like household chores, exercise or sex.

Feeling too tired for sex can be frustrating for couples and can lead to animosity if the couple doesn’t understand the physiological reasons behind such fatigue.

Surgery

Surgical procedures to remove the cancer or fluid buildup can be a vital treatment option for mesothelioma patients that can improve the length and quality of life. However, patients may experience pain post-operatively during their healing period. Research shows that uncontrolled pain leads to high blood pressure and is generally stressful on the body.

Understandably, most people aren’t in the mood for sex when they are in pain. When patients are willing to engage in sex after surgery, their partners often may refuse for fear of causing them harm.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning it affects the entire body.

Common side effects include fatigue, nausea, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, hormonal changes, mucus membrane irritation and hair loss.

When most people feel nauseous or develop GI stress, it is understandable they don’t feel like engaging in sex. Chemotherapy-induced hormonal fluctuations in both men and women affect energy levels, temperature regulation, mood and libido.

Some patients have significant weight loss or gain or lose their hair as a result of chemotherapy. Many people believe that their physical attributes, like hair and body shape, are part of what makes them sexually attractive to their partner. Looking in the mirror and feeling unattractive can have a negative impact on one’s intimacy and libido.

For many couples, sex is something they do, but don’t really talk about.

When couples understand how mesothelioma and its treatments can affect libido and sexual function, they are better able to discuss their thoughts and feelings about their sex life and how to improve their intimacy as a couple.

This report is the second installment of an occasional series on Asbestos.com about mesothelioma and sexual intimacy.


Dana Nolan, MS, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor who leads The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly support group. She specializes in working with individuals affected by cancer. Dana practices in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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