Finding Physical and Emotional Intimacy After Cancer

Published on: 03/6/15

Sexual dysfunction after cancer was the beginning of person reflection and an opportunity to evaluate what I wanted and needed in my relationship. My side effects made intercourse impossible, and though intercourse was just one form of physical intimacy, the absence of it complicated our relationship and made communication difficult.

Our first attempt at intercourse was a complete fail. The pain was immediate and severe. We both hoped my body just needed more time to heal. Weeks later, our second attempt mirrored the first. So there we were, at the beginning of the journey to find intimacy again, and not able to have intercourse. And though I didn’t miss it from a physical pleasure perspective, I missed the connection I felt when we had intercourse. We didn’t substitute other forms of sexual expression in its place, and we didn’t acknowledge the change. I realized then, intercourse had been a way of communicating for us.

It was a way of speaking when we weren’t. It was a way to apologize when pride got in the way of words. It was the way to say I miss you, I’m still attracted to you, and I love you. It made me feel attractive and made him feel masculine. Without it, physical intimacy began to feel clumsy. We didn’t have a script. And we didn’t discuss it. I felt like it was impossible not to notice the disconnection. It was like not discussing an elephant standing in the room. I felt determined to figure it out, to figure out how to find that connection again, and achieve intimacy in the absence of sexual intercourse.

Intercourse had been the vehicle I used to achieve physical and emotional intimacy before cancer. It provided the connection to emotional intimacy. But it was off the table, and we needed to find connection in other ways. Though physical intimacy can lead to emotional intimacy it isn’t the only way to achieve it. If emotional intimacy is what you want in your relationship, there are ways to accomplish that.
First, think about what makes you feel whole, good about who you are, and interesting as a person?
When do you feel loved? What does that look like? Does it involve touching? Does it involve music, or talking, or outdoor activity, or just quietly being together?

If you want emotional intimacy in your life, first define it for yourself.  It might include intercourse, and it might not. Some activities, both sexual and non-sexual for you to consider are:

The intimacy you derive from any connection is a great place to start. If your goal is emotional intimacy, you can get there from here. If it’s physical intimacy you want, one approach to finding it, is through connecting on an emotional level. That place of connection is intimacy. Remember, sex is more than intercourse and intimacy is more than sex.

To get started thinking about what you want in your life, answer a few questions that will help you define emotional intimacy for yourself.

  1. What do you love to do that makes the day worthwhile? Or even memorable?
  2. When do you feel confident, or attractive, or optimistic about your life? When do you feel confidant or optimistic about the love between you?
  3. How do you see your relationship today, versus before cancer?
  4. What do you wish your partner knew without you having to tell them?
  5. How important is it for your soul to find intimacy again? Why?

We’ll incorporate some of your answers into our next discussion on sexual communication. There are tips and simple strategies to make conversation about sex easier.

And of course, questions are welcomed and encouraged. Comment below!

    Craig Regan

    Hi Erin, My name is Craig. I am 60 years old. I live with my wife Janine and three of our four kids (all over 18) in Melbourne, Australia. I completed surgery and treatment for gastro-esophageal cancer about 6 months ago. During treatment, the relationship between Janine and I was closer than it had been in our 27 years of marriage. Due to reactions to immunotherapy and Sepsis from a leak in my sewn up stomach, I got close to death a few times. I know I would not have gotten through without Janine's support. Seeing her walk through the door of my hospital room occasionally sent me into tears of happiness. When I was in intensive care and the tubes and wires stopped us from kissing goodbye, I would ask her to just rest her forehead on mine for a few seconds. It was an intense time. We have both noticed that we've drifted apart since my treatment ended. We're not sure why. We're close to just being friends in the same house. We're not arguing, just not connecting. Perhaps a "let down" was bound to happen as we came through that intense period but we're both troubled by what seems a significant loss of closeness and intimacy, and we're frightened that we may be an example of a couple on "divergent paths in life", even though that seems strange so soon after feeling so close. I read somewhere that someone coming out of cancer has changed, even if they think they haven't. I don't think I've changed much, in fact I get frustrated by the feeling that I am not the shining example of someone with "a new lease on life, a second chance". I am back at work and feeling the same stresses etc that I always did. If I have changed I don't know what the changes might be. I'd be grateful for any advice you can offer. Thank you

    John Doe

    This is so cool.

    Rosemary Guehrn

    Great article Erin. You shed light on an important and often neglected aspect of cancer recovery . Thanks

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