By Heather Millar
In my last post I tried to address what we cancer patients can do to keep the romantic fires burning during treatment.
After I wrote the post, it occurred to me that some readers may think this frivolous. “You’re worrying about sex when you’re fighting for your life?” I imagined them protesting.
Sure, sex is part of life’s gravy. But aren’t we all fighting cancer so that we can continue to LIVE? And isn’t sex a big part of life?
I also would point out that a good support network is essential to someone coping with cancer. For the majority of us, that support network begins with a spouse or partner. And sex is a big part of the glue that binds couples together.
When you’re dealing with so much during treatment, a little goes a long way in maintaining physical closeness with a partner, says Dr. Sueann Mark, a breast cancer survivor and sex educator specializing in the unique needs of cancer patients and survivors.
After active treatment has ended, then the real work of romantic healing begins. I thought I had quite a bit of insight into this issue. But Mark, just back from speaking at the 5th Annual OMG Cancer Summit for Young Adults, made me realize that I have a lot to learn.
Some of the questions Marks says were discussed at the OMG Summit and that are common among cancer patients include: How does a person approach dating or intimacy if they must wear a catheter, or a colostomy bag, or some other potentially awkward apparatus? What does pleasure mean if some parts of your body are numb because of surgery or other treatments? What if you can’t do some of the physical things you used to do? What if you feel pain where you used to feel pleasure? What if you’re struggling with diminished energy? How do you find the energy for sex? What if you just feel damaged, unlovable?
Whole books could be written answering these questions, but here are some ways to begin, Marks says:
• It’s a cliché for a reason: Remember that before you really can love someone else, you have to know and love yourself. “If you’re going to be sexual, you’re going to do it in the body you have right now,” Mark explains. In other words, work at accepting, knowing, and loving your body as it is now.
• Set aside time to discover the new you. “Set aside an hour a week,” Mark advises. “Light some candles. Draw a bath. It’s like romancing yourself. Put on some lotion with intention. Just explore: Where do I have sensation? Where is there pain? Where is there pleasure? If something that used to work doesn’t anymore, is there another place that might work? One of the top concerns Mark hears from partners is that they’re afraid of hurting their partner. Get to know yourself again so that you can guide your lover.
• When you’ve become familiar with your changed body, be intentional about sharing it with your partner. When she works with couples, Mark at first bans them from having whatever they call sex. She advises clients to start small, just five minutes of kissing a day. Then, she has them add perhaps 20 minutes of physical sharing once or twice a week. Every couple of weeks or once a month, they might make a date to share a couple of hours, or even a whole night. Planning and looking forward to these “dates” can become a kind of foreplay, she says.
“Initially, it takes putting it on the calendar,” Marks says. “But the more you do it, the more spontaneous it becomes. If you do it and like it, you won’t be scheduling sex for the rest of your life. People shouldn’t be willing to settle. I know that I didn’t go all I went through to settle for a bad sex life.”
• Just like during treatment, it’s key to broaden your ideas about what sex is after treatment. Mark says that academic papers have documented quadriplegics who only have sensation in their cheeks but still have been able to experience something akin to orgasm just by building on the pleasure of having their cheeks stroked. We can give and receive pleasure in lots of ways.
• Mix it up to add spice. If you always have the lights off, turn them on. If you always make love in the bedroom, try another place.
• Remember that your brain is your biggest sex organ, Mark says. Fill your mind with sexy thoughts. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.
• Discover what fun a massage can be. “Clients tell me, ‘A massage isn’t sex!’” Mark says. “I ask, ‘How does a massage make you feel?’ They say, ‘I feel relaxed, bonded to my partner, sexy.’ Then I ask, ‘How does sex make you feel?’ They say, ‘Relaxed, bonded sexy.’ Really, the only difference is in how we think about it.”
Maybe that’s the big point about sex and cancer: It’s a challenge, but also an opening.
“You can say, ‘I hate it when you do that. I like it when you do that. We always had sex at night, but I have more energy in the morning. Let’s try it then,” Mark explains. “Cancer affords us the opportunity to start from scratch.”