Intimacy can be a challenge at any point in life. We don’t always feel sexy, even on the days when body and hormones seem to be cooperating, and true intimacy requires an even higher degree of engagement than just a thrust of the hips. It’s about connection and bonding on a whole different level. But, as many cancer patients discover, it’s especially hard to feel sexy when you don’t look, think, or feel like yourself, never mind if you are dealing with scars and drains or even an ostomy bag. Whether you are craving physical intimacy, or the warmth of an emotionally intimate encounter, in a long-term relationship, or seeking a new one, it is always possible to get intimate, it just might require a rethink.
Losing the Thread
True intimacy starts with an emotional connection, the kind of staring-into-each-other’s-eyes-while-holding-hand-across-the-table rush typical in the early days of a new romance when we just want to swallow someone whole to learn as much about them as possible. But sometimes, this is the hardest moment to recreate. A hectic schedule, the realities of life, worries, frustrations, or nagging resentments can all get in the way of that bond. And when a life-threatening illness is involved, so can fear.
It can be hard to open up about what you are thinking and feeling if you have any doubts about yourself or how your partner will respond to them. As a result, it’s natural to hold back, creating a little space and distance that grows when we’re not paying attention. For instance, if I don’t say anything about how scared I am of my cancer, I don’t have to admit to myself that I am afraid I might die. But, by withholding that information from my intimate partner, how will he know I need to be comforted and reassured? Similarly, if I don’t mention that I feel uncomfortable about my scar or am worried that our bodies might not fit together the way they used to, I don’t have to face the rejection that might come if he rolls over, no longer interested. But the space between us just got even bigger.
Often the withholding of information is self-protective. But, sometimes, we do it out of concern for our partner—he’s so stressed, I don’t want to give him one more thing to worry about. And sometimes we feel guilty or ashamed about all the attention we have already required and are therefore feeling undeserving of a little bit more, adding still more distance between us.
Another huge obstacle to emotional intimacy is time. Under the best of circumstances, it can be hard to take the time needed to establish or maintain intimacy. Whether it’s work, kids, household responsibilities, exercise and sports, or medical care, life has a way of filling up our days. But when we don’t stop to take the time for each other, that space between us can grow unchecked. We drift apart without even realizing it.
Unfortunately, when cancer is involved, often there are additional physical changes that get in the way of intimacy. Fatigue can make us want to stay in bed, but not with any pleasurable intent in mind. Hormonal changes as a result of treatment or the surgical removal of hormone-producing organs, can reduce sex drive and or change the way bodies respond to sexual desire. Skin sensitivity from neuropathy or scarring can mean what once was pleasurable is now painful. And surgery can leave a body feeling very different, inside and out.
Finding the Connection
Building or rebuilding an intimate relationship starts by establishing an emotional connection. Commit to taking the time and giving your partner plenty of attention, just as you would if you were first dating. Go for a walk holding hands, have a date night, share a secret (even after 34 years together, my husband still has the ability to surprise me with some of his!), cook her favorite meal, banish cell phones for a couple of hours to spend uninterrupted time together.
As you begin to find the contours of the bond, start to talk about the concerns you have been holding back. Maybe it’s body image or your roles in the relationship or all the changes and uncertainties you are wrestling with as a result of cancer or anything else going on in your life. Open up and truly share so that you can begin to close the gap that has opened between you. You might also want to explore new toys and “costumes” to help you both get comfortable with scars, ostomies or other physical changes. A little lingerie can go a long way towards enhancing the experience.
When you are feeling inclined towards physical intimacy, you can start by signaling that readiness. Maybe you come at it playfully, or maybe you take a more direct approach saying, “Let’s have sex.” But after an absence due to illness, letting your partner know that you are ready again can allow her to meet you there, physically and emotionally. But be sure to take it slow. Your body may feel different and may respond differently. It will be important to communicate. And it may take some adjusting and play along the way. The new emotional bond you built through open communication will help in making those adjustments as you get to know yourself and your partner, whether for the first time or the first-time post-cancer.
Learn more about intimacy during cancer and the emotional turmoil of a cancer diagnosis in The Big Ordeal: Understanding and Managing the Psychological Turmoil of Cancer, by Cynthia Hayes. In bookstores everywhere.
CYNTHIA HAYES is a former journalist, hospital executive, and cancer survivor who currently advocates for and mentors cancer patients through various initiatives. She has been preparing her whole life to write The Big Ordeal. She learned the basics of interviewing, synthesizing information, finding the headlines, and telling a story as a journalist early in her career. After a brief interruption to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School, Hayes spent twenty-five years as a management consultant. In that role, success depended on her ability to jump into new topics, ask sensitive questions, understand specialized information, and turn complex findings into a compelling narrative.
Shortly prior to her own diagnosis, Hayes resigned from Montefiore Medical Center in New York, where for three years she had served as vice president and chief marketing officer, focused on telling stories of health and recovery. While at Montefiore, she gained a deeper understanding of medicine and had the opportunity to build relationships with cancer professionals and other experts who helped her write The Big Ordeal.
When Hayes is not on the tennis court or writing, she mentors patients going through gynecologic cancer as part of a program called Woman to Woman, and serves as a BOLD Buddy peer mentor to patients receiving care at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in the Bronx. She also serves on the board of Moving For Life, a dance exercise program to support cancer recovery, and Global Focus on Cancer, which provides education and support for patients in developing countries.