Jolyn Hull, B.S., CHES, health education specialist, and Jacci Thompson-Dodd, M.A., MSSS, LSWAIC, OSW-C, support group facilitator
Your journey to wellness begins as soon as your cancer treatment ends. One of the first challenges along that path can be getting used to a body that cancer has altered. How your body looks and functions may be different and unfamiliar. It is not unusual for body image to suffer during this time, which can create stress in relationships and diminish sexual enjoyment. Regardless of gender or type of cancer, you might want to try “returning to normal,” yet the lingering impacts of cancer treatment can make this an unlikely prospect.
While life after your cancer treatment ends will likely be different, life and sex do not need to be less fulfilling. Seeking new ways to experience pleasure can be fun and satisfying, possibly even more than before. In this regard, you are building “a new normal."
Open communication is one of the keys to any healthy relationship. This becomes even more important as you explore what makes you feel fulfilled. Each of us expresses sexual desire in a different way. Some people are comfortable expressing their desires verbally, while others might hint or gesture to share their needs.
Whatever your communication style, letting intimate partners know what you need is not selfish. It is a selfless and necessary part of learning how to be the most fulfilled. Talking about sex and intimacy may make you feel vulnerable; however, your partner will appreciate your openness and guidance. He or she may not understand what you are experiencing until you say something. Opening lines of communication can help diminish embarrassment and pain, and increase sexual satisfaction.
It is important to talk with your doctor about when it is safe to return to sexual activities. This discussion is an equally important line of communication to ensure you receive the clinical support you may need to resume intimate relations. In addition to the resources your doctor can provide, there are many community-based resources to help you regain sexual function and restore a positive body image, such as sex-positive stores featuring intimate products and therapist specializing in sexual dysfunction. Understand that you are not alone. There are professionals who can help you achieve your desired fulfillment.
The Swedish Cancer Institute offers several support groups for cancer survivors where you can learn practical life skills for building your “new normal.” The “After Breast Cancer: What’s Next?” and “After Cancer Treatment: What’s Next?” groups feature resource-rich sessions on body image, intimacy and sexuality. The content of these sessions is specially tailored to the needs of cancer survivors. If you are interested in joining a group, visit www.swedish.org/classes for more information.
It is also important to remember sexual issues that were present before cancer may be amplified after treatment ends. For example, if there is a history of sexual trauma, the intense nature of cancer treatment might trigger previous feelings. If this happens to you, please do not suffer in silence. Ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist who is trained in sexual issues.
Although it may be awkward or difficult to start the conversations around sex and your body image, taking your goals of fulfillment into your own hands is a positive step on your journey to wellness. Cancer may have changed your body and how it functions, but cancer does not have to change the fulfillment you experience in life.
Choose this life. Choose this body. Say yes to all of it. Say yes to the beauty and the good and the ugly and the difficult. Choose what you have, what you are. Choose this moment. Choose to love and remember. You are full. You are alive.
~ Kimber Simpkins