Keep Your Love and Romance While Living With Cancer

It doesn’t have to ruin intimacy in your relationship

Keep Your Love and Romance While Living With Cancer

A cancer diagnosis can affect every part of your life — including your relationship with your partner. While it can make it more challenging to be intimate, it also can bring you closer as a couple, especially with a little patience and good communication.

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Accepting body changes

The effects of cancer and its treatment can make intimacy difficult simply because your body may not work the way it used to.

Prostate cancer can result in erectile dysfunction, while cancers that require hysterectomy can bring on menopause earlier than expected. Fatigue, lowered sex drive and difficulty with arousal can all create problems.

If physical problems are causing intimacy issues, talk to your doctor. In some cases, medication and assistive devices can make a world of difference.

Dealing with anxiety

Even though physical problems can make sex difficult, one of the biggest challenges is sometimes overcoming what’s going on in your head.

Cancer tends to affect your body image, whether you’ve had a mastectomy, lost a lot of weight or are now using a colostomy bag. You may feel anxiety and even grief over how your body has changed. You may worry that your partner will no longer find you attractive or will be unwilling to make needed adjustments.

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Your partner, too, might struggle to adjust to your physical changes. Your partner might also worry about hurting you physically or about being rejected if you’re not in the mood. All of this anxiety can lead to definite difficulties in the bedroom, especially if you’re not talking about them.

Tips for better communication 

As with most sexual problems, having an open dialogue with your partner about what’s going on is an important first step. Here are some ideas about how to start that conversation:

  • Find a good time to talk. Things are probably not going to go well if you bring up your intimacy concerns after an exhausting round of chemo or an argument about finances. Find a time when you’re both feeling relatively relaxed and connected.
  • Use “I” statements. Keep the focus on your experience of the situation rather than blaming your partner. For example, instead of saying “You never want to have sex anymore,” try “I feel sad and frustrated that when I try to initiate sex, you’re not interested.”
  • Practice active listening. Rather than trying to formulate a response to your partner while he or she is still talking, focus on deeply understanding what’s being said. Then instead of reacting immediately, simply reflect back what your partner said to see if you got it. “So what I hear you saying is that you actually miss having sex, too, but you’re feeling really self-conscious about your body. Is that right?” Take turns listening, reflecting, and responding.
  • Be honest but kind. Rather than “Your mastectomy scars freak me out,” say “You are still so beautiful, but it upsets me to see what cancer has done to your body. I’m still trying to adjust.”

Express your concerns and listen to your partner’s response without judgment. You may find that the biggest issue is simply that you’re both unsure or scared. An honest and loving discussion can reassure both of you and make it easier to connect physically.

RELATED: 6 Things to Do When You Start Dating While Battling Cancer

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Exploring different paths to intimacy 

If you do find yourself struggling, this is a great time to explore new ways of being intimate.

Remember, intimacy isn’t all about sex. Cuddling, holding hands, and even trying a new hobby together can kindle emotional intimacy. Consider giving each other massages or trying a couples’ yoga workshop.

Get creative. You might find new levels of intimacy you’ve never experienced before.

If you and your partner have tried to address your intimacy problems and are still struggling, don’t be afraid to seek help. A sex therapist certified by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists can help you figure things out together.

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Cancer Answer Nurses

Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C and Josette Snyder, RN, MSN, AOCN are Advanced Practice Nurses for Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute’s Cancer Answer Line.
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