| October 1, 2012

If you're one of the millions of women with breast cancer, you know that it affects every aspect of your life in ways you might not have anticipated.  Intimacy and how to hold on to your sexuality while battling the disease is just one area where your old habits and routines may have changed.

Dr. Melanie Davis, a noted sexual health expert who specializes in helping couples that are struggling with illness, stresses that intimacy is key even while undergoing treatment.

"Your intimacy and sexual needs are uniquely yours, and it’s important to do what feels right to you, without feeling pressured by anyone else’s timeline or expectations," Davis says.

Here, she offers some suggestions that may allow you to embrace intimacy while fighting cancer:

1. Acknowledge your feelings

You may feel relieved to have answers, confused about treatment options, fearful, embarrassed about scars or changes to your body, vulnerable, frustrated and angry, exhausted, or depressed. You may be afraid a partner will no longer be attracted to you or won’t be patient with the changes you are experiencing. All of your feelings are valid and important.

2. Talk with your healthcare providers about your sexual needs.

Many of the sexual side effects of cancer and its treatment can be lessened by planning ahead. If you anticipate breast surgery, discuss options that may preserve nipple sensation and decrease scarring.  

Ask about the likelihood that your treatment will bring on sudden menopause, which usually includes hot flashes, mood swings, and vaginal and vulvar dryness. Many oncologists are willing to work with gynecologists to identify the lowest-dose hormonal treatment that will be beneficial to women to ease some of the symptoms.

3. Share your feelings with a loved one

In an intimate, trusting relationship, it’s OK to share your worries and concerns. It’s also OK to be uncomfortable talking about your feelings. But communication is essential so that you have one or more allies in your struggle.

4. Define a new normal

You may be dealing with treatment that affects your work, your fitness routine, your diet, your sexual life, and your usual “way of being” in your body.  Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, mastectomy and other treatments may change your body and the way it feels and works.

For many people, sex consists of an established script, or pattern of behaviors. When your life changes due to cancer, that sexual routine may not work for you.

Take the time to learn what works for you now, instead of struggling with what used to work. It may be helpful to focus on intimacy rather than sexual activity, which may be too physically or emotionally draining during illness and treatment. If you need help thinking of ways to be sexual without pain or discomfort, contact a sexuality educator or sex therapist.

5. Prep your environment for intimacy.

Consider what will make your bedroom feel intimate and sensual.  Hide the pill bottles in a drawer, buy nice sheets, put on a pretty nightie, and screw a pink light bulb in a lamp to create a soft glow. Pile up pillows to support your body so you’re comfy.

6. Try toys

Sex and romance toys can lighten the mood around sex and sensuality. They can give you permission to experiment with what feels good and what helps you feel more confidence. Keep your sense of humor as you try new ways of being sexual.

7. Turn the tables

Let your partner or ally be the focus of attention once in a while. If you don’t have the strength to give a back massage, do a hand massage with lotion. Or let your partner rest their head in your lap while you read aloud or run your fingers through their hair. It’s a low-energy way to show that you care about their need for sensual pleasure, too.

8. Make changes in tiny increments. 

Bring sensuality and intimacy back into your life with small steps that are fail-proof so you enjoy success every time.