The 411: Sex + Cancer

Many of the challenges that couples face when trying to navigate a sexual relationship after breast cancer are based on assumptions and expectations about how sex should be.  Here are four common myths that can get in the way of reclaiming your sexual relationship, and tips on how to bust them.

Myth #1: Eventually sex will and MUST go back to “normal”

This common myth puts a lot of pressure on couples. This added pressure makes the discomfort and distress associated with sexual changes feel even worse, and can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment.  Hanging on to this myth also gets in the way of discovering new experiences.  Sexual relationships are constantly evolving, who we are sexually changes over the years, the definition of “normal” also evolves.

Myth Buster: Accepting that things are different
  • Acceptance means assessing the situation and developing realistic expectations about your current and future sexual relationship
  • Acceptance opens the door to new and exciting ways of being sexual
  • Acceptance also means acknowledging the grief and how you feel about the loss of your old sexual relationship (this can include loss of breasts, loss of certain sexual activities). It’s ok to be sad and miss these things.

Myth #2: Different means worse

Remember that you are in new territory here.  The landscape is different, your body is different, emotionally you are both different, and sex might never be exactly the way was before.  It’s important to acknowledge that yes, things will be different, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be as good – including sex!  A first step to busting this myth is to shift your thinking from “I will never be the same again” to “life will be different, and I have the resources I need to find new ways of satisfaction.”

Myth Buster: Flexibility and Persistence
  • Get creative! Be flexible and open to new experiences
  • Experiment with new sexual/sensual activities and ways of being physical
  • Try things a few times even when they feel new, awkward, or uncomfortable, and don’t give up because something didn’t work the first time

 Myth #3: Sex will spontaneously and effortlessly resume

Going through breast cancer and treatment takes a lot of physical and mental energy. It should come as no surprise that sex can take a back seat as your focus on your treatment and recovery. Many couples assume that with time they will seamlessly fall back into their natural sexual rhythm.  Time is often not enough; it’s what we do with this time that counts.  Think about it:  If you are an avid runner who breaks an ankle, you will likely be out of commission for a while.  Time alone will not magically fix your ankle; you need to work at it and gradually build up to running the way you were before.  Sex after breast cancer is no different.

Myth Buster: Back to Basics
  • Find new ways to connect and feel close…date, start a new activity together, make an active effort to spend more time together, learn new things about other
  • Ease back into sex. Communicate about expectations and comfort levels.
  • Take pleasure in getting reacquainted each other’s’ bodies
Myth Buster: Scheduling Sex
  • There will always be something keeping you busy, and it may seem like there is no room/time for your relationship. This is why scheduling is so important!
  • Think of scheduling as PRIORITIZING your relationship
  • The short- and long-term benefits of scheduling quality time together are worth this extra effort
  • Sex doesn’t need to be spontaneous to be great!!!

Myth #4:  If we aren’t having sex, physical affection is also off limits

Don’t assume that stopping sexual activity means stopping physical affection.  By the same token, don’t assume that physical affection always leads to sex.  Physical expressions of affection can be especially important when you aren’t having sex because it enhances feelings of closeness and intimacy

Myth Buster: Express Affection
  • Expressing affection is an important step towards finding your way back to sex
  • Physical expressions of affection can include kissing, cuddling, massages, holding hands, making out, heavy petting, prolonged foreplay, and engaging in non-penetrative sex
  • ALL expressions of affection count: Do the things that increase closeness and intimacy
  • What can you and your partner do to make each other feel good and/or attractive?
  • What are some day to day things that make you feel closer to your partner? (e.g when my partner brings me coffee in the morning, when my partner sends me a text in the middle of the day)
For more expert advice on The 411 click HERE!

Kim C.

Dr. Kimberley Cullen, PhD, C.Psych, is a Clinical and Health Psychologist whose research and clinical work has been dedicated to enhancing the sexual health and well being of women with cancer. Through her work and public appearances, she hopes to empower women to openly discuss the impact of breast cancer on their sexual quality of life and is an advocate for the development of available resources to address these issues. 

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