What thoughts or feelings come to you when you read these words? What impact has having cancer and its treatment had on your sexuality, your relationship with your body or on how you experience sexuality with yourself or with a partner? Do you feel like you have lost touch with this part of yourself or of your relationship and you don’t know how to go about finding that spark again? Maybe you have been finding yourself avoiding any interactions that could possibly lead to sex? Perhaps you have no feelings at all about your sexuality or feel that sex is no longer important for you? As you read along, I invite you to take this moment to explore what sexuality means to you now. You may notice that doing so brings up a wide range of thoughts and feelings – all of which are important and deserve acknowledgement.
For some people maintaining sexual contact remains important through the course of having cancer. Others may have put sex aside for the time when they are going through cancer treatment. But what about afterwards, once the crisis has subsided or the treatments have finished? There are those who describe finding a renewed or rejuvenated sense of sexual well-being after having had cancer or while adjusting to living with cancer. However, it is also common to experience changes that can lead to significant challenges in the areas of sexual well-being, sexual functioning, relationships, energy levels and body image.
Commonly reported sexual concerns following cancer and its treatment include lessened or loss of sexual desire or interest, genital pain, changes in anatomy that make sexual intercourse no longer comfortable or possible, loss of vaginal elasticity and lubrication, loss of the ability to have an erection, and difficulty achieving orgasm. People can report chronic fatigue and pain, fear of recurrence, body image difficulties, a lost sense of femininity or masculinity, feeling disconnected with oneself or one’s loved one – all of which can put a damper on one’s desire to engage in anything sexual. Understandably, these changes can cause many individuals and relationships a significant amount of distress. People often suffer alone and in silence, not knowing where to turn for support.
This does not have to be the case. You have the ability and capacity to achieve a satisfying sexual life again – it may be different now but that does not mean it cannot be pleasurable and meaningful. Sex, at its essence, is the giving and receiving of pleasure-oriented touch. If and when you begin to define sex in this way, new possibilities will be discovered, guiding you towards more satisfying sexual connections. It can be helpful to spend some time on your own, exploring and getting to know your post-treatment body through touch. What used to feel pleasant may no longer be so, and what did not enter your awareness as being pleasurable touch in the past may now feel good. It is also helpful to consider and possibly adjust the expectations you may have of yourself, your body and, if you are in a relationship, your partner.
Healthy communication plays an essential role in our sexual relationships. Although it can be a new and potentially challenging conversation to start, set aside time to talk to your partner about what is going on for each of you. Explore your thoughts, feelings, worries, or what you would like to see change in how you connect sexually with each other. Timing is important – find a time where you both are free from distractions, when you are not exhausted or irritable, or currently in the process of trying to be sexual together. Consider planning a date night to support reconnecting. Organize some non-sexual activities you enjoyed doing together in the past. Most importantly, try to be patient and compassionate with yourself and your partner.
Improving one’s sexual life is not necessarily a simple or easy endeavour – it takes courage and willingness. However, there is also help available. Consider talking about your sexual concerns with a health care professional you trust. This person may be your doctor, a counsellor or psychotherapist, a sex and relationship therapist, or a pelvic floor physiotherapist. In addition, there are in-print and online resources addressing sexual concerns after cancer available.
At InspireHealth, we are also here to support you. You are invited to attend our upcoming sessions on sexual wellness and cancer at our Vancouver centre this November. These sessions are open to all members, both patients and supports.
- Women’s Sexual Wellness and Cancer (women only) on November 2, 2017 from 4:00- 5:30pm.
- Men’s Sexual Wellness and Cancer (men only) on November 23, from 4:00 to 5:30pm.
If you are interested, please register to attend through reception by calling 604 734 7125 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
These sessions will be facilitated by our clinical counsellor, Erin Breckon, who has received training in sexual therapy and has worked in the area of sexual health and cancer research for several years. These sessions are intended to provide information, offer resources, create opportunities for self-reflection and present various practices or avenues you can pursue to support and improve sexual wellness in your life. Erin Breckon, MA, RCC is a clinical counsellor at InspireHealth in Vancouver.
by Erin Breckon, Clinical Counsellor