Intimacy after a cancer diagnosis can be difficult due to emotional and physical side effects, but it can also be an important part of healing.
Rene Barrat-Gordon, an oncology social worker at Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute in Ohio, often speaks with patients and survivors when intimacy is the farthest thing from their minds. But Barrat-Gordon says normalcy during, and especially after, treatment should include intimate communication between partners, and yes, even sex.
“I think in any relationship, the most important thing is to develop communication,” she says. That goes for deciding when to tell a new partner your cancer history, and also for discussing your feelings and any physical side effects that may factor into intimacy issues with your partner.
Being open to discussing cancer history and side effects should depend on the stage of the relationship, she says. If a partner is new, Barrat-Gordon recommends that patients wait until they’ve developed a good foundation before delving into medical histories, possible fertility issues and treatment side effects. She says patients shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping this information from new dating partners, but should decide when they feel comfortable discussing intimate details, including cancer.
“You are not just your cancer,” she says.
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Spending Time on Yourself
Barrat-Gordon recalls a patient ending treatment and being hesitant about dating again, especially after breast cancer surgery, hair loss and weight gain. “She kept saying at first, ‘No one is going to like me. I’m damaged goods.’
“In any relationship, the first thing you need to concentrate on is you,” she says. “You have to feel good about yourself.”
Becoming more physically active, socializing and going back to work or their usual routine could help patients ease back into normalcy.
Barrat-Gordon says her patient took time for herself and, before she started dating again, learned to accept herself after cancer. When she did begin to date someone, she took Barrat-Gordon’s advice and gave the relationship time to grow before telling her partner her cancer history. Even she was surprised at his caring response, which ultimately helped their relationship evolve.
“You need time to recover from treatment, but you also need to say that ‘I’ve had cancer, but it’s not who I am,’” Barrat-Gordon says.
One of the biggest barriers Barrat-Gordon sees when it comes to intimacy and sex is the breakdown in communication between an established couple. A patient may feel fatigued or have a low libido due to physical or emotional side effects of cancer and its treatment. The partner doesn’t want to bring up the issue, so the couple doesn’t discuss it.
“The person is so busy recovering, they push away their partner. The partner stops talking about intimacy … and then the patient may feel unwanted.” It becomes a cycle that can last indefinitely until one person opens up about the lack of intimacy.
“You do want to maintain normalcy as much as possible, though. If you’re feeling fatigued, what about having intimacy at another time, like Saturday morning instead of late at night?”
And if sex just isn’t in the cards, either because of side effects or the patient isn’t up to it mentally, she recommends finding other forms of intimacy, including holding hands, touching and kissing.
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“There is life after cancer. There is love after cancer. And in some cases, there are families after cancer,” she says.