When dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, intimacy can be the furthest thing from your mind. However, a continued connection with your partner is an important part of the bonding process and can, maybe surprisingly, even make you feel better.
Joy and her husband had been married for 38 years when she found out she had breast cancer. Even with their long history, she says intimacy was difficult during treatment and after a double mastectomy.
“We had always been loving and affectionate, but for me it was truly an effort because I felt and looked different,” she says. “I had to struggle with whether or not my breasts truly were the gateway to my heart and soul and everything else.”
She says she and her husband felt like they were supposed to keep doing what they had always done, so they continued their sex life as much as possible, even though it was mechanical at first. “It probably took a couple of years for total acceptance, but it helped that we kept trying,” she says. “Those rituals were important to our relationship and those rituals, along with our love, really helped us relax into it.”
How to maintain intimacy during and after chemotherapy
Maintaining an intimate relationship can be easier said than done, particularly when you’re feeling stressed, tired and dealing with the other side effects of treatment.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute shares some tips for partners to make this process easier on cancer patients.
- Plan time for intimacy when your partner has rested, possibly after a nap.
- Insure privacy and plan uninterrupted time.
- Avoid extremes in temperature. Set room temperature for your partner's comfort.
- Assist with household chores to conserve your partner's energy.
- Experiment with methods of intimacy that require less movement and exertion such as caressing, hugging and massage.
Communication becomes even more critical for intimacy when going through treatment. And afterward. “He (her husband) didn’t know what to do and he was afraid of hurting me,” Joy shares. “You have to find those places where there is sensitivity and then guide your partner. If there’s a place you don’t want to be touched or you want to be embraced differently, you need to let them know.”
The American Cancer Society shares: “You may find intimacy takes on a new meaning and you relate to your partner differently. Hugging, touching, holding and cuddling may become more important, while sex may become less important.” Massages and shared baths or showers could also be appropriate.
Chemotherapy requires additional precautions during sex
While we recommend maintaining as much of your normal life as possible, there are some extra precautions you’ll need to take while going through treatment.
If you can get pregnant, you’ll need to be sure to address birth control, as treatment can cause birth defects. Be sure to discuss options with your medical team.
When your blood counts are low, stimulation could cause an infection. This is a time when cuddling becomes even more important.
An anti-nausea medication can help during the first week after each chemotherapy cycle.
Though it wasn’t easy, Joy is glad she and her husband put in the effort. “When you have the love in your heart, you can find the sensitivity,” she advises. “Keep trying even when you don’t feel like it.”
Though it can seem awkward, we welcome your questions about all aspects of your treatment. The other medical professionals on your team can also be excellent resources. For more resources and information about cancer prevention and treatment approaches, browse the rest of our blog. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.