Keeping Intimacy Alive: Advice for Cancer Patients

Keeping Intimacy Alive: Advice for Cancer Patients

Article by Erika Ames, from MD

A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event that affects many aspects of your life. Often priorities shift, roles and relationships change, and other factors and challenges pop up. With all of these changes and challenges, you may even put your relationship with your significant other on the back burner and neglect emotional and physical intimacy.

But intimacy is no less important for cancer patients. A close connection with your significant other can make it easier to face your diagnosis and endure the new challenges you’re facing – together. Here’s what you should know if you’re intimidated to address intimacy concerns and struggle with whom to turn to for help.

What are common concerns about sexual intimacy during cancer treatment?
Many people have concerns about intimacy and sexual functioning during and after cancer treatment. These include:

  • Lack of energy. Cancer treatment can make you feel exhausted and sap your energy to participate in both physically and emotionally draining activities, even if you find them enjoyable. This often leaves less time for emotional and physical intimacy.
  • Body image concerns. A cancer diagnosis has the potential to change your physical appearance. Weight loss or gain, loss of hair and surgical procedures that alter your appearance can affect how you feel about yourself and can affect your desire to be intimate with your significant other.
  • Ability to participate in sexual activity. Frequently, patients experience impotency or have other sexual issues that limit their abilities to participate in sexual activity during chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, or after surgery.

How to adapt and where to get help

  • Plan for intimacy. You and your partner may not be used to planning for sexual activity, but setting aside time when the patient is rested can ensure that intimacy remains a priority in your relationship.
  • Explore alternate forms of intimacy. There will be times when sexual intercourse is just not feasible, and that’s OK. Cuddling, massage, foreplay, holding hands and simply exploring a shared interest are all ways to be intimate without having sex.
  • Communicate with your partner. When intimacy is a concern, the best thing you can do is talk about it. Couples who openly discuss their cancer-related concerns experience less distress than couples who avoid these topics. It’s important to discuss any barriers that could prevent intimacy and modifications to your usual routines that may need to be made. Make any fears or concerns known before it is time for sex. This will help ensure both you and your partner can enjoy the experience.
  • Communicate with your medical team. Certain types of cancer treatments are associated with various sexual side effects. Asking your medical team what to expect can reduce anxiety and help you prepare.

Remember, if you have concerns about intimacy and your relationship after a cancer diagnosis, consider talking with your partner, doctor or MD Anderson social work counselor. Our social work counselors can help you talk with your partner and explore ways to help you maintain intimate relationships both during and after cancer treatment.