Breast cancer is a scary diagnosis, and during treatment it can be tough to focus on anything besides getting well. There may be days when you feel optimistic and motivated, and others when you barely have the energy to get out of bed. Hopefully, you’re lucky enough to have a solid support system to lean on when you feel overwhelmed, including friends, family, and a loving partner.
That life partner, however, may be particularly important for your healing. According to a recent study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, romantic partnerships literally keep breast cancer survivors healthy in the long run. Researchers at Ohio State University found that relationship satisfaction predicts lower inflammation and stress in the months and years following treatment. This could lead to a longer—and ultimately happier—life. Cheers to love!
The Anti-Inflammatory Power of Love
“We know that happy relationships are good for health,” says Rosie Shrout, Ph.D, a relationships and health researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and author of the breast cancer study. “People in satisfying relationships live longer, have fewer health problems, and heal faster when they are sick than those who are unsatisfied.” Shrout notes that chronic inflammation is linked to several serious health conditions, including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
And those health risks may be particularly high for breast cancer survivors. Previous research has linked elevated inflammation to reduced survival in breast cancer patients, years after their initial diagnosis and treatment. To test the impact of relationship health on inflammation, Shrout and her colleagues talked to breast cancer survivors before beginning treatment, six months after treatment, and 18 months after treatment.
When they reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction, the women also tested lower for stress and inflammation. “These findings are important because her lower stress and inflammation can promote her health in the long run, such as reducing the risk for developing inflammation-related health problems,” Shrout says. “[This] can even lower her chances for cancer recurrence.”
Stress Less, Stay Healthy
When you’re in love, your body releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and adrenaline that create those euphoric feelings of happiness and safety. These chemicals also help counteract inflammation in the body, lowering both your emotional and physical stress levels.
It’s all about how couples support one another, especially while the breast cancer survivor is in recovery. “It’s not just walking down the aisle or signing a marriage license that’s beneficial for health—it’s what spouses do for each other and the support they offer one another when they’re stressed,” Shrout says. Even the smallest everyday actions (sharing a meal, going for walks, running errands for one another) can significantly lower the anxieties of everyday life. “These activities and behaviors can strengthen our relationships, make our bodies healthier, [and] help us deal with stress better,” Shrout explains.
Sex After Cancer
Another way to lower your stress and feel happier in your relationship? Prioritize your sex life. Sadly, over half of women who undergo breast cancer treatment report long-term negative effects in their sexual function, says Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D, chief of Behavioral Medicine at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. This can include decreased libido, problems with arousal, pain during sex, or loss of sensation in the breasts after surgery. Body changes can also affect a woman’s perception of herself and her sexuality.
All too often, women don’t know how to ask for help in this area. “The idea of breast cancer patients or survivors also being sexual beings has seemed like an oxymoron,” Kingsberg says, perpetuated by the idea that they should be focused on survival and treatment above all else. But really, an active sex life has huge benefits for your health, including–you guessed it–helping to fight off chronic inflammation.
“If you can maintain as much healthy vitality and healthy functioning [as possible], including sexual functioning, that can only serve to help treatment,” Kingsburg urges. Thankfully, sexual problems are extremely treatable with medication or therapeutic approaches.
Here’s how to keep your mojo up during and after breast cancer treatment:
Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor. Your doctor should be your go-to for helping to diagnose and treat your sexual problems. “It’s up to the clinician to validate that women undergoing treatment are entitled to a healthy sexual life,” Kingsberg says. In 2018, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released guidelines for physicians to talk with cancer patients about how their sex life may be affected by treatment.
Unfortunately, not every doctor will bring up sex with you automatically. In this case, go ahead and ask. “Do not suffer in silence,” Kingsberg says. “If your clinician is not comfortable addressing it, find somebody else who will.” Sexual health providers are often accessible via telehealth. This may help you feel more comfortable speaking with someone about sex – although, we’ll say it again, sexual dysfunction is never something to be ashamed of!
Maintain an open dialogue about sex with your partner. Communication is key to a satisfying sex life, and it’s important to talk with your partner about how treatment is affecting you. Kingsberg explains that too often, a lack of communication is the reason couples stop having regular sex. “A woman is struggling because she’s had surgery or chemo and she’s not feeling well, and her partner may not want to impose his or her desires onto the patient,” she says. “But a woman may then feel like, ‘My partner isn’t interested or doesn’t desire me,’ and so then she backs off.” If both partners understand that sex may change moving forward (and that’s totally normal and okay), they can empower one another to express their needs and desires aloud.
Consider therapy to help embrace the changes in your body. If your changes in desire are related to body insecurities, therapy can really help. Kingsberg explains that many couples who haven’t been sexual for awhile may feel a sense of performance anxiety when they try to hop back in the sack. Whether you choose to go to therapy by yourself, or begin seeing someone as a couple, this can help you feel more confident in your sexuality.
- If it’s a biologic problem, start a medication. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can do a number on your body, even sending some women into premature menopause. In this case, you may want to start a hormonal treatment or another prescription option to help bring your sex drive back. Of course, you’ll want to make sure whatever you’re doing is safe for breast cancer survivors (especially if it involves hormones) so make sure you’re in dialogue with your doctor before trying any new therapies for yourself.
Single and Thriving
You don’t have to be happily committed to a partner to reap the health benefits of close relationships. Friendships have also been shown to lower inflammation and stress markers. “If survivors are feeling stressed, lonely, or isolated, it is important for them to draw on their other close relationships such as their family and friends,” Shrout suggests. “Having a network of supportive loved ones can boost their health, especially in times of stress.”
So, if you needed another excuse to take the evening off and spend it with loved ones, consider this your official permission slip. You’re just building healthy habits, after all.