Let's Talk about Sex, Intimacy...and Illness
by Dr. Murali Murty
For those fighting a serious illness, maintaining a healthy sex life and keeping intimacy alive can be difficult, but it isn't impossible. During this time of the year, here's some advice on how to overcome these obstacles and keep your hearts and your relationships healthy.
It's February and everyone is seeing red.
Not only are we in "Valentine Month," but each February we also observe American Heart Month.
Both observances, however, can be quite hard for those in our lives fighting a serious illness. A key reason is intimacy, which affects our hearts and our heart health in a myriad of ways.
And, unfortunately, sex, sexuality and intimacy are among the most overlooked topics among patients of either gender while fighting disease such as cancer or diabetes and all are very different but necessary conversations to have with loved ones and medical professionals. Below, we will take a look at each aspect and offer recommendations on how to deal with matters of the heart if either are fighting illness or loving someone who is.
Serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes can make the physical act of having sex difficult or impossible. This is especially true among those fighting a disease that is focused in or near a sex organ such as ovarian, testicular and gynological cancers. Simply put, some diseases make the act of intercourse impossible.
Diabetes can impact both sexes in a similar way, sometimes restricting blood flow to the point of erectile dysfunction or loss of vaginal lubrication.
And, oftentimes breast cancer patients lose a great deal of sensation in their chests, a pleasure center for many women, making the act of sex less appealing or less satisfying.
So, does a couples sex life simply end while one is fighting disease?
The key during this sensitive time is understanding and communication.
The patient must make the effort to communicate their loss of libido or ability to maintain arousal, while the partner must communicate their continued desire for the person has not waned during illness. Then, both partners must understand that sex as they both know it will need to change, at least temporarily.
- Invest in a good lubricant
- Go through the motions a few times
- Try alternative techniques such as oral or digital stimulation
- Even if sex is less pleasurable during an illness, every so often it is worth biting the bullet and going through the motions if you can. The result: you and your partner not just satisfied, but successful in maintaining emotional and physical intimacy during one of the hardest times in your lives.
Certainly, the physical act of sex can be hard enough during illness. But, oftentimes it is truly our desire to have sex that wanes, often due to our complete loss of sexuality from weight gain, scaring, hormones, et al.
During a cancer battle, for example, emotions are running high and our perception of ourselves often starts to run dangerously low.
While in the acute phase, some of the most common side-effects that drain sexuality are:
- Weight gain or loss
- Altered sex organs
- Altered sense of self
Sadly, there is no magic mojo pill to help. But, there are support systems ready and waiting to talk both the patient and the partner, who can also lose his/her sense of sexuality while tending to patient needs and becoming the primary caregiving the household.
While the patient's doctor should have a handy list of recommendations, the Wellness Community has some fabulous resources in a group setting. And, one-on-one and/or couples counseling can be critical at this time.
From kissing to the sharing inside jokes or fears, intimacy is at the core of all relationships in our lives. It includes all of the physicality of sex and all of the emotions of sexuality and then some.
The loss of this crucial element in a relationship often means the eventual loss of the relationship itself.
But, keeping intimacy alive during illness is hardly a walk in the park. It means that the patient has to share their fears about the future and health rather than going through the motions of everyday life. It also means that the partner must share frustrations and fears as well. It means sweating the small stuff together often.
Loved ones deserve to be a part of the process of disease the good, the bad and the ugly.