When Cancer Threatens Intimacy

Advice for young couples navigating a cancer diagnosis
Monday, August 11, 2014 - 10:13am

Every couple faces challenges throughout the course of a relationship, but nobody expects cancer to be one of them.

Shortly after diagnosis, treatment consumes all of our time and energy. This can put a strain on romantic relationships. The AYA population is unique in this area because many of us are in the early stages of committed relationships or marriage. We haven’t faced any big relationship hurdles yet and we are still adjusting to life with a partner. A cancer diagnosis is a pretty big obstacle to throw at a young couple.

The key to overcoming this obstacle is maintaining intimacy with your partner. This is easily overlooked during treatment, but a crucial step in the process. I'm not just referring to physical intimacy. Intimacy can be the time we spend just being close to our partner or spouse. While this does include physical intimacy, it also includes simple things such as private talks, walking together, or just going on a date. The things that once happened so naturally are often put on the back burner after a cancer diagnosis. We focus so much on the treatment and disease that we forget about the treatment and health of our relationship. Intimacy leads to a healthier relationship and it can be a nice distraction from the world of cancer — even for a short time.

Specific factors that affect intimacy include body altering surgical procedures. These procedures can have damaging effects on self-esteem. If you’ve had one of these procedures, you're probably worried about your partner's reaction to your new appearance. Reach out to Roswell Park's Psychosocial Department for couples counseling to help sort out your feelings and communicate with your partner. 

Many medications can influence intimacy between partners as well. Medications can alter mood, make you fatigued, and decrease sexual drive. There are Occupational Therapy techniques to help you overcome some of these issues. Talk with your care team about options.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) developed two booklets that address intimacy and sexuality problems that occur as a result of cancer and its treatment:

There is no question that finding time for intimacy during treatment is hard, but you and your partner will get through it together. Here are a few tips that helped my wife and I during treatment and some important things to keep in mind.

  • Set a time for intimacy. Pick a time when you and your partner are well rested and can have time to just focus on each other. Planning ahead can help you avoid interruptions or manage treatment-related fatigue
  • Utilize resources. If you have concerns about physical intimacy, talk to your doctor. There may be times when sexual activity needs to be avoided, such as when blood counts are low and immediately following chemotherapy. But remember, it’s usually just temporary.
  • Keep it simple. Intimacy is unique to every couple. The important part is to focus on each other, and avoid talking about cancer.
  • Communicate. Communicate with each other and your physician. We can’t do everything on our own and sometimes we need to talk to professionals for help. Medical social workers are trained to help couples navigate these types of issues.

Jacob Madonia, a sarcoma cancer survivor and RPCI pediatric nurse, shares his insight and advice for adolescent and young adult patients each month on Cancer Talk.

Read other posts by Jacob