By Erin Buck, Ph.D., and Irene Teo, Ph.D.
Cancer treatment and sexuality can be awkward to discuss, but opening the lines of communication can make a big difference for patients and their romantic partners.
Cancer treatment often leads to changes in appearance or bodily functioning. When these changes happen, patients may feel less positively about their bodies and their sexuality. The strain these changes put on romantic relationships and sexual health often goes unaddressed.
One way to cope with changes and strengthen your relationship as a couple is to communicate openly with one another. Here's advice for communicating about appearance or functional changes you or your partner may experience due to cancer and cancer treatment:
Start the conversation
The first step toward managing feelings about physical changes is to discuss them with one another. If there's something on your mind, it may be on your partner's mind too. In difficult times it can be comforting to share your experiences and be reassured. Remind each other that you are in this together.
Voice your concerns and acknowledge what has changed
You may be worried about protecting your partner's feelings, and consequently may be tempted to deny your concerns. However, it can help to express your concerns and feelings -- as long as it's done supportively, without blame or criticism. When communicated in this way, your partner is much more likely to respond openly and positively.
Be patient when it comes to intimacy
Expect adjustment to physical changes to take time. You may need to adjust on your own, before working on the impact of these changes as a couple. Set aside extra time for intimacy and be patient with one another. Consider expressing and receiving affection in new and creative ways. It may also be useful to think of this as a time to explore and get to know your body and your partner's body again.
Remember what has NOT changed
Focusing on the things that are different after cancer can lead to frustration. Remember that many of the most important things have stayed the same. Despite physical changes, your partner is still the person you fell in love with and has the same capacity for loving you back.
There may be professionals within your treatment center or community who can help you and your partner cope with appearance-related or functional changes. If you have difficulty finding a professional, talk with your care team for help. You may have to start the discussion to get your needs met.
MD Anderson's Body Image Therapy Program will host a free three-hour workshop on body image and sexual health concerns for patients and their partners on Saturday, March 1, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. To register, or for more information, email BodyImage@mdanderson.org or call 713-745-9889.