Finding Stability

Cancer and Sex: When “In Sickness and In Health” Doesn’t Go As Planned.

The idea of talking about cancer and sex may be uncomfortable, but it's important to be open with each other about your feelings. Just getting it out in the open can deepen intimacy and keep your relationship healthy.

Cancer and sex: Chances are you were only thinking about one of these things on your wedding day when you vowed to love your partner “in sickness and in health.” You said these vows while praying that you didn’t faint, hoping that your best man’s speech wouldn’t be an embarrassment and that your mother-in-law would find little to complain about. The last thing on your mind was how a cancer diagnosis would impact your intimacy, and more importantly, how to handle the emotional and physical complications affecting your spouse.

When “Let’s Do It” Becomes “Not Tonight, Dear.”

Cancer can take a huge emotional toll. It can range from anxiety over an upcoming test or appointment to coping with the diagnosis. Be patient with your spouse while they are coming to terms with their new reality, and realize that this acceptance may mean that, in the short term, cancer and sex may not coexist. Wait this storm out because better days are ahead.

While you are waiting out the storm, you can maintain intimacy without sex by giving your spouse a massage or holding hands, or by setting up a date night on your loved one’s good days. Expressing your admiration or gratitude on a daily basis will also help the two of you maintain intimacy during this difficult time. Start with something that your spouse does on a good day, like washing the dishes or preparing a meal (even if it meant having pizza delivered). Letting them know that you are aware of their efforts to be “normal” will help your relationship stay normal.

When “Lights on” Becomes “Lights off.”

It doesn’t matter if it is a feeding tube, a surgical scar or a missing body part — your spouse is most likely dealing with body image issues. To them, the ideas of cancer and intimacy may seem like opposites. Tell them how much you love them, but do not focus on the physical while doing so — your spouse is already self-conscious about their physical appearance. Engage in activities with your spouse that will help rebuild their self-image, such as “Look Good, Feel Better,” a program dedicated to improving a patient’s self-image through beauty techniques. Other ways to help include helping turn something your loved one is passionate about into a new, self-esteem-boosting hobby. Try setting up a day of pampering, which could include shopping, a spa day or something as simple as a coffee date.

When “Please” Becomes “Please Don’t Do That.”

Chemotherapy and other treatments have a wide range of side effects. Your spouse will have good days and bad days, so knowing when cancer and sex can coexist may mean keeping a calendar that marks treatment days, recover days and potential good days. As a loving spouse, focus on approaching your partner about potential intimacy on their good days.

When “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby” Becomes “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.”

Communication is the key to any relationship — cancer or no cancer. Talking about cancer is taboo for some, talking about sex is taboo for others — the combination could make anyone uneasy. Struggling to discover how cancer and intimacy fit into your life together is to be expected. What’s most helpful, however, is to be there and be willing to listen when needed.

Remember that cancer and sex are two separate things. They do not represent the love that brought the two of you together (and keeps you together). At some point, all couples, cancer or not, need to reignite intimacy — this is the ebb and flow of life. For the two of you, the ebb may have arrived because of a diagnosis, but remember that the high tide will always return.

If the idea of directly talking about cancer and sex feels too daunting, consider reaching out to a professional counselor to help start the discussion with your spouse.

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  • Network23

    An excellent article! As a spouse of a cancer survivor, I can attest that this is really spot on. It can *hurt* to suddenly have a wall between partners, and you can’t help wondering if it’s somehow your fault. It isn’t! Be patient, remember the love, and yes, it can and does return!

Chris Kidwell
Chris Kidwell