A healthy sex life is important for many people, but it can prove difficult to attain, especially after a cancer diagnosis. Achieving and maintaining healthy sexual relations often require communication, education and, sometimes, the help of a trained professional. As Chief of Radiation Oncology at our hospital in Newnan, Georgia, I treat all parts of the body and specialize in pelvic malignancies. I am often asked how cancer patients can address intimacy challenges, so I wanted to share some of the things I have learned and some of the things I say to patients about sex. I’ve found that it all comes down to four basic steps:
Step one: Communication. Before real progress can be made, couples need to take the time to think about and remember why sex is special and what they actually miss about it. The intimacy of sex fosters a bond through passion, love and, most of all, acceptance. Patients may feel insecure because of certain changes in their body, or they may worry that they no longer have or even deserve their partners’ acceptance. A great first step in healing their physical relationship is for these couples to discuss their mutual desire to be together. If they can regain intimacy and comfort in romantic moments, it makes the physical challenges far easier to approach as a team.
Step two: Intimacy Rehabilitation. Think of sexual relations as “just another body system.” In the field of physical therapy, you encourage restorative steps, push the limits and set realistic expectations. Sex and intimacy are no different, and it is important to rejoice in every victory, big or small. For intimacy therapy to be successful, you must schedule time and develop realistic goals. Little by little, you work toward getting back to the physical function you enjoyed before. Medications and devices may also help and are nothing to be upset or ashamed about.
Step three: Making time. Put time for intimate moments on your calendar, or develop a tradition of kindling intimacy on certain nights. Yes, you can also still enjoy as much spontaneous intimacy as you like, but set a minimum of at least twice a week for intimate play, but not necessarily sex. If you have sex, that’s great, but that isn’t the point, so you haven’t failed if you don’t have sex. The point is to rebuild intimacy into your partnership by using time and cooperation as your tools. Sex is a great way to achieve intimacy, but it isn’t the only one, and there are a lot of kinds of sex. Succeed at intimacy together and celebrate that victory. Rejoice in closeness and talk about it. There is no stress because you can’t fail at intimacy. As you progress through rehabilitation, you may need health-care professionals who support you. Consider turning to doctors who can talk with you openly about the subject, without making you feel uncomfortable.
Step four: Personalize your plan. Many options are available for you to discuss with your physician, including little blue pills, vaginal dilators, pumps, injections and all kinds of creams. It might sound like these options would suck the intimacy right out of a sexual encounter, but not if you and your partner set a foundation of strong and frequent intimacy. Building that foundation will make medical interventions around sexual function an experience you both share.
The couples who rehabilitate intimacy together are the couples with the best shot at having great sex. Perhaps even more importantly, they’re also the ones who more often describe the results as truly great sex.