*April 2019* Written by Tess Taft, MSW, LICSW, and oncology psychotherapist.© The feelings related to sexuality when it comes to cancer run the entire gamut from: “I finally bought us a vibrator, and the first orgasms I’d had in a year made me cry. Every time. It’s so relaxing, you know” to “Sex now? Are you crazy? Really??!!”
Here are some other women talking about cancer and sex:
“In spite of the chemo and my exhaustion, I told my husband last night ‘Let’s make love. I miss you.’ He just looked at me like I was a crazy woman. Finally he told me that he was afraid to hurt me or that I’ll lose my breath.’
“We have finally learned to reach right through to sex again. It took courage for both of us, since I wonder if I’m still desirable at all, as tired and scarred up as I am. But we still love each other, so we tried, and it was pretty good.”
“My lack of sexual desire is the only thing that causes friction in our relationship. I love my husband so much. He feels abandoned. But so do I.”
“Now that I have no desire, it’s hard for my husband. His pleasure was always MY pleasure. It’s so so sad.”
“Vibrator. A LELO vibrator. And a good lubricant! Get them today! It changed everything. We play now, when sex used to be kind of routine. I don’t often have the energy, but when I do, we are closer than we ever have been.”
“My husband told me, ‘I’m a beast to still want that.’
When our libido goes south, there is usually a lot of GUILT for everyone involved: one for not wanting sex, the other for wanting it. GRIEF is easily triggered about loss of beloved body parts, loss of erotic sensation, fears that scars make us unattractive. Grief accompanies the feelings of the loneliness that is cancer, since your partner can’t really understand your suffering. He or she can only watch and love you from outside you. Then there’s FEAR: fear that cancer will never really be behind you, fear of feeling like “damaged goods”, or sexual abandonment: fears that your partner will have an affair (and those fear fantasies seem to always be about someone younger, and stunning, with a perfect body), and perhaps most of all, fears of never being able to feel deep sexual pleasure again. And let’s not forget the ANGER: at yourself for not having very much sexual desire, at your partner or spouse for wanting sex anyway when you’re so tired or have pain or no desire, anger at God, at friends who can’t understand.
Sexual Healing From the Blows of Treatment
- Navigating sexuality during and after cancer requires a level of intimacy that may be new for both you and your partner. This is true because of the new level of vulnerability that comes from the feelings just mentioned. Unless you learn to talk honestly with each other, painful distance can grow between you that can feel insurmountable. If you find it too difficult to talk on your own, please get some counseling with a therapist who specializes in treating couples (an EFT therapist would be especially helpful, I think).
- Talk together about what intimacy means for you now. Not just sex, but intimacy: coming together in love and compassion, heart to heart. Has it changed since cancer? Have you lost feelings of deep intimacy since cancer? Or have you gained a new closeness with each other?
- Which of you usually initiates sexual sharing? It might help to give each other notice early in the day that you, or your partner, wants to make love. It will give you time to prepare, in your mind. Letting go of the idea of spontaneous sex really helps some couples. Remember when you first made love with each other? There was nothing spontaneous about it! Remember the lingerie? The candles? How you made it special?
- Ask for cuddling, or just to be held. Doing this releases the same bonding chemical, oxytocin, as an orgasm does.
- Try sex without intercourse. Many couples have reinvented their sex lives during and after cancer to include their own versions of physical intimacy. This can be the most intimate way to love each other that some have ever discovered.
- Take the pressure off from trying to fix things right away. Healing this vulnerable part of your relationship takes time.
- Don’t forget sex toys! Many women who have had cancer love their LELO vibrators. Several oncologists I know recommend them. They can truly make sex fun again. It’s a very intimate activity to have your sex partner hold the vibrator for you, getting to know your sexuality in whole new way. Be brave! What have you got to lose? If sex toys and erotica written by and for women are new for you, set the scene at home alone at first:
- Change the bed sheets, light a candle
- Relax your body with some nice deep breaths
- Read some good erotica
- Play gently with your new vibrator
- Other resources:
- Talk with other women who have had cancer about this issue! They may be your greatest resource of all. Ask the counselor at the cancer clinic to hold a one evening support group or gathering to talk about sex and cancer, for just women, or for couples.
- “Persistence Is Key to Treating Sexual Pain”, by Jane Brody. New York Times
- Check out the American Cancer Society Sexuality and Cancer booklet. They put one out for women and a separate one for men. It is really a good resource.