Here are some tips for managing intimacy and self-care, during or after a cancer diagnosis.
Having been called upon to speak and work with fellow cancer survivors in February, I was keenly aware of some of the reactions to the month - Valentine’s Day, love, intimacy, relationships and the list goes on. It occurred to me when speaking that it was important to point out the importance of self-care and intimacy, especially when it comes to survivorship. I mean, let’s face it, it can be hard to feel intimate when you’re in the process of breast reconstruction or you’re feeling the side effects from chemotherapy or other drugs; but the relationship we have with our self during good and difficult times in life is critical. Generally speaking, if we are not careful to find ways to manage our physical wellbeing, then it can directly impact our mental wellbeing and overall sense of self-esteem and potentially our ability to heal.
So how do we work on intimacy when we are feeling low and possibly like our own body is potentially fighting against us? The answer may lie in managing our basic needs and self-care. Until cancer came, how often as adults have we slowed down to take care of ourselves? A good number of survivors say they found one gift from having cancer was learning to go back to a sense of appreciation for some of the most basic things in life. Sitting in a cozy chair, closing one’s eyes and enjoying something as peaceful and soothing as the warm caress of the sun on their face, feeling the warmth of a fire, or slowing down to feel a gentle breeze on their skin as they take time to sit and truly enjoy and connect with the world around them.
In today’s fast-paced world, it is possible that self-care has taken a back seat due to such adult responsibilities of managing children if we have them, a job, a home and possibly managing the needs of a spouse or elder parent before our own needs. Maybe the first step in connecting with our own body again is taking in the environment around us and noticing how we feel while connecting with nature and ourselves. When was the last time you payed attention to the feeling you got when hearing a bird sing or listening to the sound of waves of the ocean and how we react even deeper when we combine that with the smell of the fresh air or maybe the trees or ocean? While in recovery from cancer and undergoing surgeries, this was the part of me that I had to nurture and realize it is was not selfish to invest in “me time” as part of the healing process. If I couldn’t exercise to feel good or even go for a walk due to fatigue and healing, I realized that I could at least sit and notice the healing rhythm of my breath, find comforting sounds or playlists I could create and immerse myself in pleasant smells to help with the healing process. Priorities shifted from what I could accomplish to simply nurturing myself and investing in basic self-care. This may have included filling my hospital room with comforting and familiar scents and having a favorite set of comfortable or slightly sexy pajamas for overnight hospital stays which were not for anyone other than myself, so I could feel good in what was otherwise an uncomfortable environment.
With the help of imagery, anyone can imagine a peaceful place you have been to or wish to visit. As you learn to find comfort in your body and connecting peacefully with your environment you can then learn to focus on thoughts you have about your body. Learn to get comfortable saying, “I am loved, I am worthy, I am attractive, I am valuable” with some seriousness. These affirmations are no different than before you may have lost your hair, underwent a surgery or lost a breast or other body part.
I suggest intimacy should be celebrated not just in February, but the entire year — and it begins with ourselves. Practice writing down positive things you can tell yourself about your body and reciting these or look at them at least once a day until you convince yourself they are true. Are you being as kind to your own body and life as you would be if you were giving the same feedback or care to a loved one? If not then it is time to start making yourself as valuable as the way you treat others. Be loving with yourself, nurturing, and feel good about the wonderful unique person you are and your ability to connect with the world and your own body especially in times of healing.