Caring Currents

Cancer, Sex, and Intimacy

Last updated:

December 06, 2009

Recently I went with two friends to a local talk given by a cancer support group called "Cancer Changes Everything." What the talks focused on was sexuality when one person in a couple has cancer.

The teacher had a gift for putting people at ease, and gradually this group of middle-aged and older people, more than half of whom were cancer patients, the other half spouses and partners, opened up about changes they've experienced in their sex lives since the cancer diagnosis.

Here are some of the things I heard:

From a 50-something man with colon cancer: "The stress of dealing with cancer treatment has completely zapped my sexual energy. I have zero libido; it feels like sex has just disappeared from my consciousness. And I'm a man; that's not supposed to happen."

From a woman in her late 60's with breast cancer: "I didn't have breast reconstructive surgery; it was much less common 15 years ago when I had my surgery. I was incredibly self-conscious and insisted that we leave the lights off, but my husband worked so hard to make me feel desired. Gradually I just stopped worrying about it." Now, she said, she and her husband are one of the most sexually satisfied couples she knows; more so than many older couples who didn't go through cancer.

A woman in her 40's who has finished treatment for breast cancer said being single and a cancer survivor is daunting. "I've gained 20 pounds due to the hormonal treatment I'm on. My hair's grown back, but it's short and I've had people ask me if I'm gay. I can't imagine taking my clothes off in front of a new man. So how do I venture back out into the dating scene? I just can't imagine doing that. But I'm lonely."

A man in his early 60's reluctantly acknowledged he's been experiencing erectile dysfunction since having prostate cancer treatment. His girlfriend said nervously that it's been hard for them to talk about it, and she's become tentative about initiating sex, afraid of making him feel bad.

The teacher, Jennifer, was very frank and open about the changes cancer patients experience in their bodies, and how those changes can affect a couple's sex life or a single person's confidence in starting a relationship. An expert in relationships and intimacy, she was characteristically encouraging and direct. "A healthy sex life can improve your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being," she said. It's perfectly okay to want that -- there's nothing undignified about it.

Cancer patients should never feel bad if their sex drive disappears while they're going through treatment, she said. "Chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation are enough to cope with without sex," as one patient put it, to general laughter.

But when your libido returns, it's important not to let the physical changes in your body prevent you and your partner from resuming sex. Just because cancer has changed your body, that's no reason to deny yourself the pleasure and closeness of intimacy, Jennifer said. And if things don't quite work the way they used to, cancer patients and their partners can work around limitations and find new ways to feel good.

Basically, she said, "if you can breathe, you can have a great orgasm!"

After the discussion, the relief and lightness in the air were palpable. One couple was holding hands; two single women in a corner were laughing about their dating experiences.

I wish every cancer clinic taught a class like this, refreshing in its honesty, openness, and acceptance. It's clear everyone left feeling better than they came.