Staying Intimate
CR Magazine: Collaberation – Results

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A Conversation for Caregivers

Oncology social worker Hester Hill Schnipper discusses the potentially overwhelming issues and feelings that partners of cancer patients face.

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By Hester Hill Schnipper

Staying Intimate

Being close means more than sex

By Hester Hill Schnipper


Almost everyone going through cancer treatment loses some interest in sex. Some patients have no libido; others are willing but find they can’t physically respond. A few lucky ones have little change in their normal sexual activity. But if you are the partner of a cancer patient, most likely your sex life has changed—and not for the better.

As is true for all issues that couples face, the most important response is communication. The situation will only get worse if you don’t talk about it, and you can be sure that your partner, too, is aware that your intimate relationship has changed. As awkward as it may feel, it is crucially important to bring up your concerns and feelings. Be sure that you don’t sound accusatory or angry: Focus on the love between you, and your wish to be as close as possible as you go through these hard times together.

After each of you acknowledges that there is a change, your first step is to find out what is possible and realistic for a person in your partner’s current situation. Occasionally, there are medical reasons why intercourse is prohibited for a period of time. More often, the trouble is related to side effects from chemotherapy or radiation, recovery from surgery, and, most of all, your shared general mood. When a person is depressed, worried, nauseated or feeling bald and unattractive, it is hard to feel sexy.

Assuming that there is no medical reason for your partner to limit sexual activity, it probably will be up to you to take most of the initiative and responsibility. Begin by reassuring her that you find her beautiful and desirable now, and that the changes in her appearance do not affect your love or your desire. Don’t make the mistake of saying that you don’t notice the differences—this obvious falsehood will make anything else you say suspect. If the patient is a man, be aware that performance anxiety may be a big part of his reluctance; tell him that you don’t need intercourse to feel good. Talk about how you miss being close, being skin to skin, and how much you want to hold and care for him.

Remember that intimacy and sexuality are about much more than sexual intercourse. The goal is to feel close, to give and receive love. Suggest that you just snuggle; hold hands when you are walking; kiss the top of her head when you walk by the couch. Consider taking showers together, giving foot massages while you watch television, rubbing his back before sleep. Try agreeing that you will stroke and caress each other but will avoid erogenous zones—this can take the pressure off performance and help you remember how good it feels to be touched. Think about using massage oils, playing soft music, dimming the lights. Set the scene for love, but be clear that it is love, not just sex, that you are celebrating.

If none of this works as well as you would wish, be reassured that time can help. As your partner feels better and adapts to life after a cancer diagnosis, it is likely that the two of you will find ways to resume your sexual relationship. It is even possible that living through cancer will sweeten this part of your life as you treasure and appreciate each other even more than you did before. CR endbox