Broad Sex Spectrum
- Everything is “normal” around sex and cancer treatment.
- It’s natural for your libido to decrease.
- Supportive partners and a supportive community can help.
A new study released today from the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) reports that sex in midlife is ranked as “important” by nearly 25% of older women. (Well, of course – we could have told you that!) Sex and sexual desire are natural functions of being a human, and just because someone gets older age doesn’t mean it all goes out the window. Humans are sexual creatures, and healthy sexual desire is a product of that.Read More
The study from NAMS found that women’s age, ethnicity, health, and overall satisfaction have an impact on how they view sex. Circumstances dictate temperament – that much is true. And this means that when it comes to cancer –particularly gynecological cancers – your attitude towards sex, and your own sexuality, may very well change. That is to be expected. Nothing is out of the norm when it comes to sex and cancer. And we mean nothing.
Emotional and Physical Changes Towards Sex
Dr. Kimberly Resnick, a gynecological oncologist at Metro Health Cleveland, noted the emotional changes that a woman undergoes during gynecological cancer diagnosis and treatment. “There are so many factors at play,” said Dr. Resnick.
With gynecological cancers and breast cancers, your sexual organs may undergo significant physical changes. This can lead to some women having body image issues. “A woman may lose a breast, her hair – and all of these affect body image, and the way women view themselves as sexual beings.”
Blood flow to the vagina may also change during cancer treatment, which can create changes in the level of sensation. Additionally, there can be vaginal scarring from radiation which may lead to pain during intercourse. “So the body may be telling you: Protect yourself; don’t have intercourse. Using medications can help with that as well,” Dr. Resnick said. “If there’s a diseased part of the sexual tract, for many women, it may feel like the loss of femininity. And sometimes, we can’t always make them feel better.”
Luckily, there are people who can help you feel better.
The Psychology of Sex & Cancer
Oncological psychiatry is a whole field devoted to helping people with cancer cope with their diagnosis, treatment, and all that a cancer diagnosis entails. It may be worth meeting with a specialized therapist to guide you through your cancer journey.
Dr. Resnick assures people that everything is normal when it comes to sex and cancer. “I talk to my patients, and I tell them that anything on the desire spectrum is considered normal. If a patient wants to be sexually active, that’s normal, and I give them my blessing because I think intimacy does help. And if they feel the need to abstain, I support that as well.”
Advocating for Yourself
You may need help adjusting to the physical and psychological changes around sexuality regarding your cancer. It can be hard to find the courage to speak up for yourself. “I think the most important thing about sexuality and cancer is it simply isn’t spoken about,” notes Dr. Resnick. “Women need to advocate for themselves and have these conversations with their providers. And they may not have the right provider – they may not feel comfortable [speaking up] – so they should seek out support groups or talk to their gynecologists.”
But self-advocating isn’t always enough. It helps if you have a vocal doctor, too. “Your doctor has to be willing to have these conversations,” said Dr. Resnick. “Nothing is going to be fixed unless the doctor is willing to have these conversations. And usually, it starts with the patient advocating for herself, and saying: ‘Hey, we need to talk about this.’”
Partnership or Singlehood
Dr. Resnick emphasized the benefit of having a stable partner during your cancer journey. She said, “We know that women who have stable partners and relationships, as well as stable intimacy, tend to report better quality of life when undergoing cancer care.”
But if you’re single, don’t worry. You will undoubtedly have the love and support from friends and family, and while your experience may be different than that of someone with a partner – you will still be able to navigate it with your community in your corner.
Decrease in Libido
“It’s not abnormal for a woman to see a decreased libido, as well as [decreased libido for] her partner,” said Dr. Resnick. Many [patients with cancer] don’t report needing sexual intimacy.” This said, sex is important, still. “Many pre-menopausal women still want to be intimate with their partners.
How to Return to Sex
If your libido dropped off during treatment, counseling options exist. Dr. Resnick noted that providers can work with you directly to connect you with a counselor. Additionally, it may be useful for a couple to enter into counseling together.
“These women after going into remission and being disease-free, have very long lives ahead of them,” said Dr. Resnick. “They want to return to normalcy.” It’s the use-it-or-lose-it mentality; a return to sex “keeps tissues healthy.”
Adjusting to Your New Life
Cancer upends daily life for all involved. There will undoubtedly be adjustments as you navigate your cancer journey. It’s important to surround yourself with supportive people, be gentle with yourself, and listen to your body to know what’s right for you. If sexual desire goes out the window for a time, that’s normal. If you still want it regularly, that’s normal, too.
There’s a broad spectrum when it comes to sex and cancer, and you’d be doing a disservice to yourself if you compare your own experience to someone else’s. Whatever you’re feeling sexually is normal, and we hope you feel empowered and at greater ease in knowing that.