Kristin Nielsen, MS, LMFT, CIIP, Swedish Cancer Institute community partner
When you are coping with cancer and cancer treatment, your main focus probably has something to do with survival, which make perfect sense. As your team is assembled and a game plan is mapped out, thoughts may wander to cancer’s effects on day-to-day living including sex and sexuality. After all, as humans we are hard wired to love and be loved. Perhaps the following questions have crossed your mind.
How can cancer affect my sex life and sexuality?
It is estimated that 40 to 100 percent of cancer patients, depending on the type of cancer and how it is treated, report some degree of sexual complication related to their illness. It is common to experience a decrease in desire for sex and changes in sexual functioning and orgasm. Changes in sexuality, the way you feel about yourself when it comes to sex and your need for closeness and touch are also common. Emotional issues that existed prior to treatment or as a result of cancer, such as depression, anxiety and grief may complicate sexual activity. Many individuals resign themselves to a life of unsatisfying sex, but it does not need to be this way. There are lots of things to be considered, experimented with and talked about. Granted, sex may not be the same as it was before cancer, but that does not mean it can’t be fulfilling.
How can body changes affect sexual desire?
Battling cancer is a life-altering experience and one that can leave physical and emotional evidence. As you cope with cancer, adjusting to how you view yourself as a sexual being takes time. It can affect your desire for sex, especially if your treatment has left permanent reminders. Hormonal changes resulting from treatment or hormone therapy can also reduce desire for sex as the hormones testosterone, progesterone and estrogen are imbalanced. Genital pain can occur when sexual encounters are attempted and affect your desire for future sex as pain becomes synonymous with intercourse. Anxiety may overtake desire as what came naturally in the bedroom prior to cancer treatment is now unpredictable and foreign. Although it may seem unattainable, desire for sex can be nurtured and increased through conversation and patience.
What can I do to address sexual issues associated with cancer treatment?
Talking about sexual issues is one of the most helpful tools in your toolbox. Discussing sex with your medical team over the course of treatment and during follow-up appointments not only provides you with information but it emphasizes the importance of intimacy to professionals. Talking with your partner about your fears, sadness and sexual side effects as well as what kind of touch might feel good, how you wish to be loved, and how you would like to show love is vital to a healthy sex life. Finally, discussing sexual issues with a therapist specializing in sex therapy can provide you with a safe environment to talk about your experience with cancer, your sexuality and sex.
If you have further questions or would like more information, please contact our Survivorship Clinic at 206-860-6488.