Rediscovering Intimacy after Cancer Treatment

Monday, December 23, 2013 - 1:34pm
Medical Social Worker, Psychosocial Oncology

I spend a significant part of my day at Roswell Park Cancer Institute working with couples. Together, we assess and work on any intimacy concerns that may arise during diagnosis, treatment, or post-operative recovery.

When patients come to me, one of the places that we start is defining intimacy. I often begin by asking couples when they had last been intimate. Most replies are sheepish. That is because the patient and their significant other normally perceive me to mean “physical intimacy.” When I remark about this, they will reply “Yes – yes, isn’t that what you asked?” and I say, “No.” It is there we start to discuss the wide spectrum of intimacy and its other forms.

For many types of cancers, the treatment itself can have side effects that impact the intimate lives of patients. Whether that is side effects from radiation, chemotherapy, or the result of a body-altering surgical procedure, there are specific therapeutic interventions we can deploy to assist with these anxieties.

What I find a lot in working with couples is that the level of emotional intimacy can be impacted by a cancer diagnosis and the consequences of its treatments.

A lot of what I recommend – and it may sound cliché – is taking a trip down memory lane. I encourage couples to talk about getting out the photo and wedding albums, watching home movies, or going through the letters and cards sent to each other over the years. These are all steps that work toward rekindling the emotional intimacy that once fueled individuals to become a couple.

And it’s not just about reminiscing. It’s about remembering and recreating these experiences. Don’t just talk about how you used to always take long walks, talk about it and then go for that walk. Or is it long drives through the countryside? Hop back in the car. Or perhaps it was those deep and endless late night conversations – make the effort to speak again.

In many ways, these experiences can prove even more intimately intense than physical intimacy.

In fact, this may be an opportunity to develop your intimacy to a level you had not before.

If you are having intimacy concerns I urge you to contact our Psychosocial Oncology Clinic, talk to one of our doctors, or talk with your private doctor – all of them can refer you directly to us.