After cancer, bodies and relationships change. In fact, many men find their sex lives look and feel different from their pre-cancer days. Although you may feel embarrassed or nervous to open up to your partner about sexual changes, talking about post-cancer intimacy can help you re-envision your body and your relationship. These tips can help pave the way for establishing a new sex life after a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Start talking early
Although it seems like physical contact is one of the most important parts of intimacy, the truth is that communication is essential for establishing and igniting closeness. Remember, there’s no one way affection should look, and previous relationship expectations can be difficult to maintain during cancer recovery.
For men in particular, sexual function changes can manifest as shifts in desire, the impacted ability to get or maintain an erection, or even delayed or dry ejaculation. Instead of withdrawing and avoiding intimacy or affection, I advise my patients at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) to talk with their partner right when they’re diagnosed to start the dialogue about possible changes in your sex life. Before you go into surgery or start therapy, have a conversation about your sexual self-esteem and identity as a sexual person. You and your partner can check in with each other a few months later to see how you’re both feeling about your sexual self-identity and work on identifying a new vision of intimacy in your relationship.
And it’s not just your partner you should be talking to—communication is equally important between you and your doctor. Going through cancer can change your sex life, but that doesn’t mean your doctor has covered all the sexual function differences you may notice. If you notice sexual functioning changes, talking with your doctor can open up the possibilities of personalized treatment options. By speaking up and asking questions, you can better establish a healthy approach to reclaiming your sexual identity.
“Date” your partner again
Partnership is a key part of any relationship, and should be just as important after diagnosis. During cancer, relationships can transition from partner/partner to patient/caregiver, and returning to old “norms” can be challenging. A good way to approach this is to continue to date your partner throughout treatment. By dreaming together or going out to eat, you can help refocus your relationship around things that aren’t related to cancer. You can also try scheduling time for intimacy and affection, which can help rekindle intimacy found in partnership. Try to take your time and get to know each other again.
After treatment, sexual desire can wane. A lot of things can impact desire including hormonal changes, pre-occupation/focus changes, decreased self-esteem/confidence, and mental health issues (e.g., anxiety or depression). Remember, intimacy might not happen spontaneously and might not involve sex at all. Try playing to other strengths and learning to perfect new types of intimacy—not every sexual interaction requires an erection or an orgasm. If your goal is satisfaction, it’s important to note that men can still reach orgasm without an erection and the penis itself can still experience sensation. There are many ways to feel pleasure, these just might not look the exact same as they did before diagnosis. Remember you’re in charge of defining what you want intimacy to be—it can even be as simple as connection.
The sexual side effects that you may experience from cancer can happen to anyone—cancer treatment just speeds up the process. Normalizing and understanding issues of intimacy after cancer is just one step you can take to acknowledge habits or preconceptions that may be harmful. Sex doesn’t have to be a certain way to be fun and exciting. With these guidelines, you can work on re-establishing intimacy and gaining newfound confidence post-cancer.