New ways to think about intimacy during and after cancer

For some, the lingering emotional and physical effects of a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can take a toll on your body image and how you feel about intimacy and sex.

Surviving breast cancer is a big milestone that should be celebrated, says Dr. Selyne Samuel, fellowship-trained breast surgical oncologist with Premier Health Network’s Premier Surgical Oncology.

“If the side effects prevent you from being who you used to be before cancer or they prevent you from having fun and enjoying life, talk to your doctor,” says Dr. Samuel. “There are many ways we can help.”

Intimacy Issues: A Side Effect of Cancer

Problems with intimacy after cancer treatments are common, says Dr. Samuel. Between 30 percent and 100 percent of women who underwent treatment for all types of cancer report it, according to leading national organizations focused on cancer. Issues can include a fear of painful sex, a lack of desire, and worries about incontinence.

All cancer treatments come with side effects, such as:

  • Chemotherapy. Physical changes, dryness, early menopause, loss of libido
  • Radiation. Physical changes, hardening and thickening of skin and tissues, swelling
  • Surgery. Changes to your body from a lumpectomy or mastectomy, loss of sensation

These changes can impact how you feel about yourself and sex. You may:

  • Doubt your sexual attractiveness
  • Experience changes in how you see yourself
  • Feel like less of a woman or feel less “whole”

Communication is Key

The first step to overcoming these physical and emotional obstacles is communication. Talk with your doctor. Talk with your partner. Seek counseling. Don’t wait, because emotional and spiritual issues don’t improve over time on their own. Your care team can help you get you the help you need.

You or you and your partner can discuss new goals for intimacy – such as connectedness, pleasure, playfulness, and sensuality – with your doctor, a social worker, or therapist. There are many ways to address and increase intimacy, Dr. Samuel says. You can:

  • Adjust timing of intimate encounters to avoid fatigue
  • Alter your usual routine
  • Focus on caressing and hugs
  • Use humor

When you share how you’re feeling, your care team can help you make decisions or refer you to a therapist, says Joni Reser, a certified nurse practitioner with Premier Physician Network’s Premier Health Urology.

“The earlier you ask about it, the more comfortable you will be over time,” Reser says. “It’s important for you to be open and honest with yourself, your significant other, and your health care provider. Sometimes this is a difficult conversation. Let us help you have these discussions with your partner.”

Reser recommends writing down all your questions — big or small — so you remember to ask them at your appointment or via a MyChart message. “We have many resources that can provide answers for you and your partner. Our goal is to help you have quality of life in every aspect of your treatment.”

Whether you just completed your breast cancer treatments or are still searching for ways to improve intimacy 10 years into survivorship, a variety of treatment options are available to you. They include counseling, medicines, physical therapy, and guidance to help you live a healthy lifestyle.

Learn more about all of your options and additional resources by watching a Intimacy and Cancer webinar at

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