Your relationship and sexuality

Having cancer can affect your relationship and sexuality in many ways. These always vary from person to person. Both partners have to adapt to the demanding situation and to new roles due to the illness.

Cancer and your relationship

A serious illness such as cancer introduces new elements to your relationship as well as different sorts of challenges. It is commonplace for cancer to affect your relationship in some eespect, but the ways in which this happens vary greatly.

Both partners cope with cancer in their own way and from their own perspective. When one partner becomes gravely ill, it is usual for both of you to exist on the edge psychologically. You may find it hard to predict your own responses.

Living with cancer – family, friends and children

Living with cancer – relatives and friends of cancer patients

Cancer can easily start to dictate the course of your relationship and your entire everyday life. As partners you have to adapt to the new situation together, and your habitual roles may alter. The partner with cancer may have to take greater responsibility for the family and everyday matters. Often, the one who has fallen ill will be supported by his or her partner, but it is sometimes the case that the one who is ill ends up supporting the other partner. There is sometimes the risk that the illness will excessively dominate a couple’s relationship and their every day lives, even though the illness and its treatment no longer demand it.

For some, the changes induced by cancer in couple relationships are short-lived, while for others the disease permanently alters their relationship. It is inevitable that there will be changes in your relationship. But the kinds of changes you experience will depend on the life you have lived together and the ways you have developed to act in different circumstances. Though cancer is an extreme situation, you can try out some of the good ways you have found for managing in other situations.

No one can say what a relationship should be like during or after the illness. Having cancer does not mean that you should forget about other aspects of life. Some relationships deepen and become stronger as a result of the illness, but others may come to an end as a result of the heavy situation.

The main pillars of a relationship – taking one another into account and being responsive to one another’s needs – are of prime importance when one partner has cancer. The disease requires understanding from both sides. It is important to discuss it openly and to express your feelings and articulate your needs.

Apart from discussing the situation, it is important that in your relationship you make time for showing intimacy and tenderness. It is also good to ask your partner directly about his or her hopes for coping in the new situation, and to proceed together in learning to live with cancer.

Each partner needs support during the illness. Both the one who is ill and the other partner can also talk about problems with experts, either together, or else individually, especially when mutual support becomes too hard to deal with.

Cancer and sexuality

Sexuality is often seen as relating only to eroticism and sex. In reality it is much broader in scope.

Sexuality is a person’s individual relationship with their own sense of self, body and feelings of pleasure. Sexuality is a natural part of a person’s life. It does not diminish with age but it may alter. The significance of sexuality is different for each of us, and we all realise our sexuality in our own unique way.

Cancer and its treatment can affect sexuality in a variety of ways. These may be physical, social or psychological. The changes you experience may be to do with how your body works, your appearance, your sexual identity, sexual desire or how you relate to your partner.

Cancer can alter your sexuality temporarily or permanently. Having cancer can make you feel unsure about yourself and anxious. You may fear that you’ll never again be able to enjoy sex, be desirable or, say, achieve an erection. If you are young and have cancer, you may worry about becoming infertile.

If sexuality is a crucial issue for you and you have cancer in the genital area, for example, it would be normal that sexual matters preoccupy you right from the outset of the illness. For some, things to do with sexuality and sex do not even come to mind during the illness and its treatment. And this too is normal.

Sexuality and enjoyment of it during the illness may also boost your resources and increase your sense of wellbeing.

The impact of cancer treatment on sexuality

Loss of sexual desire is common during the illness and its treatment. This may be a result of the crisis and anxiety brought on by having cancer. Just how big a problem the loss of libido may seem depends on how much importance you attached to sex before the onset of illness. If you regard loss of sexual desire as a normal and short-term occurrence, it will be easier to adjust to the situation.

Loss of libido usually passes. When you don’t feel like having sex, couples can retain their closeness through tenderness, caresses and attentiveness. Closeness and touching are ways of expressing love and togetherness, and of reawakening sexual desire.

Cancer treatments such as radiotherapy aim to protect the genitalia and fertility of patients as well as possible. The adverse effects of treatment cannot, however, always be avoided.

Cancer treatment may result in the removal of organs that are indispensible in terms of a person’s sexuality. Cancer treatment directed at the genital area may in particular significantly impact sexual function. Treatment may have a variety of consequences, such as numbness in the genital area, mucosal dryness, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), erectile dysfunction, premature menopausal symptoms and urinary incontinence problems.

Cancer and its treatment can cause permanent changes to the body or how it functions. These do not need to be an obstacle to having sexual intercourse. There are many ways to overcome or ease dysfunctions and there are always possibilities to find new ways to be fulfilled sexually.

Fertility

Often, cancer patients of childbearing age worry about being able to have children following their illness. For more about safeguarding your fertility see:

Cancer and fertility

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Your thoughts and feelings concerning sexuality may be confused and frightening, but you should express them, both to yourself and your partner. It is good to talk about this with your partner when you are both ready to do so.

Questions about sexuality and relationships are by no means less important than other questions concerning cancer and its treatment. Maintaining sexual health affects your overall state of health, so it is important to take account of it during the illness. Right from the outset of your illness, you can approach your doctor and other medical staff about the impact on sexuality of the cancer you have and its treatment. Information makes it easy to deal with the situation and to eliminate misconceptions and prejudices.

If the information you obtain from your doctor is insufficient, you can request a referral to a sexual health specialist. Urologists are specialists in erectile dysfunction, while specialists in sexual dysfunctional problems in women are gynaecologists. For advice on issues to do with sex, relationships and sexuality you can consult a sex counsellor, sex therapist, sexologist or a relationship therapist.