Re-establishing intimacy after cancer
October 6th, 2011
07:26 AM ET

Re-establishing intimacy after cancer

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

As a nation, we first observed Breast Cancer Awareness Month - dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of early breast cancer detection - 25 years ago.

As the years have passed, the campaign’s visibility has grown, making it one of the most successful of its kind. Proceeds from pink apparel make October one of the rosiest months of the year. Charity walks abound. Education regarding self exams and breast cancer symptoms has become part of the public consciousness.

But as caught up as we are in the dual causes of prevention and additional medical research (both crucial), not as much attention has been paid to the sexual aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.

Recently, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that sexual performance can be adversely affected in the cases of men who have undergone treatment for prostate cancer. Although the effects vary greatly depending upon a number of variables - age, the severity of the cancer and the quality of the man’s sex life before treatment - the majority of participants in the study reported continued issues with erectile dysfunction and other intimacy-related issues after treatment.

And although prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the United States, it’s not the only type that can lead to sexual dysfunction. According to an earlier study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, a large percentage of both men and women (including 95% of women with breast cancer) have experienced some level of sexual dysfunction after being treated for cancer.

Says Anne, a cancer survivor: “During treatment, sex stopped. Now that I think about it, most forms of intimacy between me and my husband stopped as well. It makes sense to me now; out of fear, we both withdrew from one another. But if I could do it over, I would have paid more attention to sex. I would have tried harder to remain intimate. I thought we could set that aside and come back to it when the diseased storm had passed. I thought we could pick right back up in bed when I was healthier. This wasn’t true, though, and we have found it especially difficult to re-establish our sexual relationship.”

Why does this matter so much, especially considering that so much else is at stake? In “Sexy Ever After,” a new book dealing with intimacy post-cancer that’s available for free as a digital download during the month of October, the authors - Patty Brisben and Keri Peterson, M.D. - write, “Your sexuality is a vital part of your health and sense of well-being. To put it under the carpet because you’ve been sick is shutting off an area of your life that is a source of vitality.”

One of the biggest roadblocks to a healthy sex life after cancer is lack of desire. Libido is a complex thing, and libido can be affected by so many different factors: Hormonal therapy and chemotherapy can cause low libido.

But the issue could very well be psychological, too. Your sense of sexual identity may have been compromised, or your body image damaged, due to treatment symptoms like hair loss, infertility or disfigurement. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use those changes as an opportunity to find new ways to enjoy sex even more.

You can’t allow your intimate life to fall victim to the health issues you’re struggling with. It’s not fair to you or your partner. Being proactive about fighting your low libido is important, and if you work hard enough at it, sex will become fun again.

Says Krissi B., a cancer survivor, regarding sex after cancer treatments: “You don’t want to have it. You don’t feel sexy. You don’t feel pretty. You don’t have the energy. I also had an open incision on my chest for seven months because my mastectomy wound did not heal. The very first time I looked at my mastectomy wound, I was in the shower. I said to myself, 'It is so ugly.' My husband came into the shower fully dressed and kissed that area. 'Cancer’s ugly, honey,' he said. 'You can never be.' "

"When you get a mastectomy, you don’t have the same body you had, because you’re missing a breast. You don’t have that muscle tone, because of the chemotherapy. You don’t have your hair. You just don’t feel sexy. But then you realize that true love is about your inner beauty and not your external beauty.”

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.