Sometimes, life throws you a curveball with a cancer diagnosis. While information abounds about how to cope mentally through treatment, it’s harder to find out about what you can expect for your sex life, which often changes. One of the problems is that most doctors aren’t given training on how to talk to you about sex, so you may have no idea of what is the normal experience for a cancer patient or survivor. The below feelings aren’t signs that something is wrong with you, this is just the average experience of someone who is going through cancer. And fortunately, it’s not all bad! You can come through the experience of cancer closer to your partner and having better sex than ever, too.
Cancer can exacerbate existing insecurities such as shame about your body. If you were nervous about getting naked before, scars from surgery, missing hair from radiation, and other cancer treatment-related issues could make sex feel more intimidating. When cancer shakes your confidence, concentrating on pleasure and staying in the moment becomes difficult.
Depending on where your cancer is, sex may become painful due to the treatments. It’s crucial to let your partner know if this is the case—and it’s important that you don’t have sex anyway, for your partner’s sake. A partner who cares about you will be happy to use masturbation when you aren’t having sex and will be glad that you aren’t suffering through it without cluing them in.
Especially for those who lose a part of their body, like their breasts, grieving is normal. During cancer, you are also grieving the confidence you had in your old body and trying to move to an acceptance of how your body is currently. Even if you opt for breast reconstruction, the sensation just isn’t there anymore, and your new breasts can feel a bit unfamiliar. A good idea is not to make the decision to have reconstruction right away. You can always wait! Adding to the overwhelming feeling of recovering from cancer and the amputation of your breasts by adjusting to a new substance in your body may be too much to handle at one time. Feel free to put off this decision for another time when you have more bandwidth to consider it seriously.
Stress lowers desire, period. Whether or not you were distracted during sex before, treatments, surgeries, and other worries will likely weigh heavily on your mind. Arousal can be the last thing you’re thinking about. Worse yet, with the decrease in desire often comes guilt for many people. They worry that their partner is disappointed in them or that they should somehow power through their emotions to feign arousal that just isn’t occurring for them.
Mental Health Issues
If you have baseline mental health issues, you can expect these to rear their ugly heads when a cancer diagnosis comes along. Anyone with a history of depression, substance abuse, or anxiety will probably experience these during cancer treatment.
The Other Side
When cancer treatment is through and you’re recovering, sex may be different for the foreseeable future. But, this can turn out to be a bonding experience for you and your partner. You can redefine sex together, and find new, mutually pleasurable activities that you may have overlooked before. It’s important to keep an open mind and not have the same expectations of sex you had before. Going through cancer together can build intimacy, and when you’re on the other side of it, you may be closer than ever before.
If you or someone you love is going through cancer, getting some therapy can be essential for your mental health. Get in touch with a couples therapist who can help you navigate the tricky waters of mental health and sexuality during your diagnosis.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in the Los Angeles area. She works with various individuals to understand and improve their sexuality. Dr. Moali conducts personal consultation sessions in her Torrance and Hermosa Beach offices, or via a secure, online video-counseling platform. Click here to download the 101 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Hot checklist.