10 Tips for Better Intimacy During Cancer Treatment

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Cancer involves you in the fight of your life, and it’s often difficult to find pleasure in anything anymore — including sex. Still, there are strategies you can use to put some bliss back into bedtime — both for your own sake and your partner’s.

Communicate With Your Partner

If your partner is expecting a return to “normal” but you just can’t see that happening — let him or her know. When it concerns this level of intimacy, you need to share the same goals. It’s tough, but start a conversation; if you both need to have a glass of wine first, do it. Talk about your new body; how it feels physically, and how you feel about it. Discuss what it’ll take to satisfy both of you — then when the opportunity arises, go for it.

Change the Venue

Maybe with kids around, your formerly carefree sex life had become centered on the bedroom — but there’s no law against branching out. If the kids are gone, pull the shades in your house or apartment and see what happens! Or spring for an overnight trip to a hotel, preferably one with a pool and hot tub. A change of location is sometimes just what you need to make sex enticing again.

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Reach Out and Touch

Physical intimacy begets physical intimacy. So if you’ve fallen out of the habit, start over — beginning with the basics. Hold hands while watching Netflix. When he’s washing the dishes, stand behind him and give his shoulders a quick rub. Kiss her goodnight. Even a quick squeeze of the shoulder in passing says, “I care, I see you, I love you.” At first you’ll have to remember to do these things, but after awhile it becomes a sweet habit.

Blurry couple about to kiss
Daniele Riggi

Color Outside the Lines

If certain sex acts you used to enjoy are now painful — for example, like penetrative vaginal sex is for many women after chemotherapy and/or menopause — try something different. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try new things if both you and your partner are up for it, setting aside traditional views of what sex “should be.”

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Relax and Unwind

The end of a stressful day probably isn’t the best time to try to resolve sexual issues. Instead, be proactive about relaxing before physical intimacy. Find a hot tub you can sit close together in; health clubs, especially those with a pool, often feature this nice option. If you’re lucky enough to have a tub large enough for two, pour some wine and turn on the hot water. The first step to alleviating emotional stress is physical relaxation.

Inhibit Your Inhibitions

“Good girls” don’t do X… or Y… or Z? Get over it! As long as you’re not hurting anyone and all parties involved are onboard, there’s no limit to what you can or can’t do with (or without) your partner. Maybe fantasizing about that guy in the new Hulu show turns you on. Perhaps you enjoy remembering sexual experiences from the past, or even picturing yourself with a different partner. So long as you accept it all for what it is (fantasy), what can it matter to your current relationship?

Woman talking to her oncologist
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Ask Your Oncologist for Help

What if you’ve always loved “traditional sex,” but simply find it so painful you can’t enjoy it any longer? Your oncologist can recommend a variety of strategies to ease your physical pain. Low estrogen is often the culprit; topical estrogen or a slow-release internal estrogen ring have helped many women. Other women report relief after using a weak solution of the common anesthetic lidocaine. But do speak with your oncologist; they are interested in the quality of your life as well as its length.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh

Sometimes you may find yourself unable to relax and enjoy sex, especially when things don’t go as planned. So if you’re making love and suddenly get a painful muscle cramp, just stop, roll your eyes, smile, and change position. If lymphedema makes it impossible for you to use your arms the way you once did, make a joke about those darned chemo side effects. The most important thing is to stay positive — and oftentimes that means seeing the humor in what might otherwise be a stressful situation.

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Redefine Sex

Do you feel increasingly guilty for avoiding sex? Redefine it! Sex is more than just intercourse; you can decide that sex encompasses any kind of physical intimacy, from walking arm in arm to hugging and kissing on the sofa to “spooning” in bed. If you’ve decided your sex life is over, think again; every time you touch your partner with love (even if that “touch” is simply a meaningful look from across the room), you’re improving your sex life.

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Accept the New You

It’s tempting to think back on your sex life before cancer, especially if it was satisfying. But regret has never helped anyone move forward. Change is inevitable, and the change you’re dealing with now is a new body. Maybe you’re missing a breast; perhaps you’re not as limber as you were, or classic sex is painful. Accept your body; love it. Step by step, figure out what you can and can’t do — and move on.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.