April is cancer awareness month, but one topic that hasn’t gained much awareness is intimacy after a cancer diagnosis. Sexual dysfunction affects up to 90% of women treated for breast cancer, and 79% of spouses and partners of women with cancer said that sex and intimacy either lessened or stopped altogether, according to a report published by the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CCTFA) Foundation. Yet more often than not, both health care practitioners and patients alike are hesitant to discuss the effects of cancer treatment on a woman’s sex life.
Lisa Skelding is a sex and couples’ therapist based in Oakville, Ontario and expert blogger on the topic of sex and intimacy for FacingCancer.ca, the leading online psychosocial support group for women with cancer. She says that changes to sexuality during or after cancer treatment can be associated with self-blame, rejection, sadness and lack of fulfillment for both parties.
“At the heart of the issue is lack of communication,” explains Skelding. “Not only do women undergoing cancer treatment feel anxious about their sexuality, they may feel awkward and exposed talking about intimacy with a professional or even with a sex partner.” Skelding explains that intimacy doesn’t always have to mean sex, and feeling connected during treatment and afterward can provide not only a sense of normalcy, but comfort, strength and hope. “The psychological benefits are significant,” she adds.
Skelding offers the following advice to help cancer patients regain intimacy:
1. Acknowledge feelings of hurt and loss in terms of sexuality, intimacy and sexual function. Feelings of loss often get acted out if they aren’t recognized and talked out.
2. Muster up the courage and talk to your partner about your fears. Physical changes brought about by treatment can make many couples afraid to connect physically, but if it’s not discussed, both partners end up feeling disconnected when what they really want is to feel close again.
3. Don’t stop asking until you get the help that you need. Schedule an appointment with your doctor, nurse or therapist, specifying that you have a couple of questions regarding your cancer treatment and sexual health. Write down your questions but start with the most pressing question first.
The online community can also provide information and support for the non-medical side effects of cancer. “When I was diagnosed and treated for cancer years ago, nothing like FacingCancer.ca existed,” explains Sherry Abbott, Executive Director of the CCTFA Foundation, which manages the FacingCancer.ca community, made possible by Shoppers Drug Mart. “For women to be able to face their cancer diagnosis head on, they need emotional support and a safe place to learn and connect.”