Alberta Cancer Foundation

Getting In The Mood

By: Michaela Ream

Julie Munch and Mandie Dening

Q: How can you and your partner prepare for potential intimacy changes even before treatment begins?

Julie: After cancer treatment, nothing is the same, so knowing how you will approach those changes throughout treatment will be a lot more helpful. Talk about ways to show each other that you still love each other or how you are going to maintain physical closeness, even without intercourse.

Mandie: Talk about things like protection if you’re having chemotherapy because the chemotherapy drugs can pass to your partner [which risks damaging healthy cells and tissues]. Birth control is going to be really important to talk about, and the use of lubricant is also something that’s really important with treatment side effects.

Q: What physical changes can occur during and after treatment?

J: Women can get vaginal dryness, and it causes issues of painful intercourse, sometimes painful urination, pain with walking and can be impactful to their quality of life. We also see decreased sensation in female and male genitalia, including changes and increased disability to orgasm. Loss of interest in sex is one of the most common things, whether from physical changes or the stress they’re going through.

Q: What emotional changes can occur that may affect intimacy?

M: Some people develop a fear of having sex, especially if they’ve had cancer related to their genitals. Stress can also cause erectile dysfunction, feeling a loss of femininity and masculinity and pressure to feel that masculine or feminine archetype that many people have for most of their lives. For each individual, it’s not being able to have an erection or not having both breasts can affect confidence and the ability to engage in sexual activity.

Q: How can couples maintain intimacy when intercourse isn’t an option?

J: Change what intimacy means in your relationship. So, what did you do when you first started dating? What made you feel close? Identifying these things can really help you figure out ways to make your partner feel valued or find new ways to be intimate. Change is always scary, but sometimes it can lead to something even better.

M: It’s totally fine to embrace sex being off the table –– it’s important for couples to talk outside of the bedroom. Mindful touching can help, like taking time to touch each other intentionally helps to stay connected physically and without that pressure to have sex too soon or too fast.

Q: What resources are available for couples?

J: We have the OASIS program, where we offer support for intimacy concerns and changes from cancer affecting that. We are open by referral or even self-referral if couples aren’t comfortable talking to a medical professional.

M: We’ll also refer to different options depending on the specific needs. If we’re not able to help or things are more intense, there is pelvic floor physiotherapy, or urologists, gynecologists and other specialists in sexual health issues.

To access the OASIS program, call 403-355-3246 in the Calgary area and 780-432-8260 in Edmonton.