Reclaiming sexuality after cancer

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’ll probably get used to people asking about your health. And whether you’re fielding the concerns of well-meaning friends and family or the professional interests of your care team, you’ll gradually learn what responses to give.

But many cancer patients and survivors choose to keep part of their journey private – especially if they have sexual health issues related to treatment.

Sharon Bober, PhD
Sharon Bober, PhD, is director of the Sexual Health Program in Dana-Farber’s Perini Family Survivors’ Center.

And these issues are common for many cancer survivors. Estimates complied by the National Cancer Institute indicate that at least half of people who survive certain cancers report some form of sexual problem, such as loss of desire, pain during intercourse, or infertility. Certain chemotherapy medications, for example, may trigger early menopause in women. And often prostate cancer treatments can result in erectile dysfunction in men.

Through Dana-Farber’s Sexual Health Program, we remind patients and survivors that  sexuality is a basic quality-of-life issue. As such, it deserves as much attention as any other problem that has a negative impact on one’s ability to enjoy life. It shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment or shame. We encourage patients to approach these issues openly and take a step-by-step approach to finding ways to improve sexual activity after cancer.

1. Reconnect with yourself. Going through cancer treatment may make you feel disconnected from your body. Becoming comfortable again is an important first step. Our bodies naturally change as we age, but these changes are often magnified by the cancer experience. Take time to rediscover your sense of pleasure and sensuality, not necessarily recapture what used to be.

2. Talk openly with your partner. Remember that sexual problems affect your loved one as well. Approach the process of becoming intimate at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you. Choose a moment when you’re alone and relaxed, and talk with each other to troubleshoot problems you are having. Often, partners aren’t sure about how to start the conversation and this topic can become like the elephant in the room. Give yourselves permission to talk honestly and openly about your feelings, both good and bad, without judging them.

3. Tell your doctor or someone else on your treatment team what’s going on. Questions about sexual health may be difficult to bring up with your doctor, but such concerns are normal and perfectly appropriate to discuss. Start by identifying your main concerns and questions. Write them down before your appointment, and try to be specific. Instead of saying “intimacy is a problem,” offer a specific example, such as loss of desire or pain during intercourse. Your doctor or nurse can address your concerns and offer tips to help or they can advise you about where to get support, such as from a sexual health professional

4. Stay positive. The process of returning to intimacy after cancer can be challenging at times, but it’s worth the effort. And you can find ways to rediscover your sense of pleasure and sensuality. There are a wide variety of helpful strategies available today to help women and men reclaim intimacy after cancer treatment.

Perhaps most important, remember that sexual health is essential for moving forward after cancer. It‘s not just something that can help you feel loved and supported; it’s also a life-affirming part of the human experience.

Sharon Bober, PhD, is the director of the Sexual Health Program in Dana-Farber’s Perini Family Survivors’ Center. The program is open to all cancer patients and survivors, whether treated at Dana-Farber or elsewhere, and provides individual and couples counseling, referral and follow-up, and education for patients and professionals.