Vol. 9 - Another PerspectiveCancer does not just affect you. It is not just your sex life that is affected. Your partner is also along for this cancer journey. The role of care giver is hard and often overlooked. The care giver is coping with everything you are, just in a different way.
Not only are they impacted by caring for you, they are facing many unsure possibilities. Their emotions are as erratic as yours. Your partner is in the cancer trenches with you, so remember to give them a break if they seem tired or weary or possibly unsure as to handle intimacy.
Considering everything you have gone through and all the changes you have faced with cancer, it is normal for you to have fear-based questions in your head.
- Does s/he find me attractive?
- How can s/he, if I don't feel attractive?
And considering everything your partner has gone through, it is normal for them to have fear-based questions in his/her head.
- Will I hurt you?
- What feels good now?
- How do I make her feel attractive?
- Is she still attracted to me?
- I know she is feeling insecure, but what do I do?
Your partner has had the role of care provider and lover. Those two roles can create some conflicting dynamics.
As a Care GiverOn one side they are doing the best they can to care for you. And often those things are not easy or appealing. From vomit duty to changing tubes to watching suffering… these are not what we normally describe as arousing moments.
That is not to say your partner is not attracted to you… it is to say, that cancer can be ugly. And it is ugly for everyone involved.
Everything you are facing, they are coming to terms with too. They are having to adjust to the new you, too. Just as it was a whirlwind of crazy for you, it was a sideline whirlwind of crazy for them. They are the observer. They often feel helpless. They often feel guilt. They often do not talk about it… which can lead to a distancing.
In some ways, s/he may grow closer to you. Caring for you. Helping you. Supporting you. In some ways, s/he may grow more distant from you. Less intimacy. Less playfulness.
Yet, you do not want your partner to be just your nurse. You are with them because you love them and they are with you because they love you. So, you have to work at keeping the love and sex.
As a LoverLove, sex, and intimacy are things you work at. Just like any relationship, you get what you put into it. And right now, you don't have a lot to put into it. Your partner gets it, but s/he needs to know you are still invested in them too.
Most people think they understand how or what loving a partner through cancer will be like… they are up for the challenge. They have imagined the scenarios. They have mentally prepared for the challenge. However, the reality of cancer can be more challenging than expected. Unfortunately, there are a lot of relationships which end during or after cancer.
Without nurturing the role of lovers, the intimacy of a relationship can fizzle out. Your "cancer to do list" may not place sex at the top, but it needs to be on the list to keep your relationship strong. Remaining lovers and keeping intimacy provides an outlet, a connection between you and your partner.
When they look at your altered body, they have their own emotional reactions to it too. And most likely, it is not one that is sexually stimulating. Remember it is shocking to them too. They need time to adjust. And here is where communication is essential.
Both of you need to be able to communicate about it. I am not saying partners should tell you that they are unattracted to the new you, but they should be able to realize this feeling and work on it.
What he may or may not say...Take a moment to think about it from someone else's perspective. He may be thinking a number of things.
No, your partner may not find the body changes, boob loss, bald head, sick mess attractive. In general, I would think they are lying if they said they were. However, those things are not what defines sex… and they love you and want you well. Yet, they are worried they find these things unattractive.
They tell themselves they know what to expect, what it will look like. They tell themselves they will love you through it, even though they are not fully aware of what is coming. They tell themselves they are in it for the long haul, even though they are afraid of losing you. Then the reality of it all happens, and they may not respond in the way they think they should. They are possibly conflicted and guilty over those feelings.
They are worried about you. They see you hurt. They are bystanders to cancer. They are trying to put their needs aside. They are focused on keeping you alive. They feel more like a nurse than an partner. They are also expecting these things to end. They are thinking normalcy should return. And just like you, they have no idea what they are in for.
I mean think about it, they say they don't care about anything but survival… and then they are faced with thoughts which may hurt the person's feelings or cause them more pain. It is a valid reason to just deny, shut down, and possibly run away. If they begin to shut down or unable not to get passed this feeling, they should seek a counselor for help.
Taking time to think about it for a minute from their perspective is helpful. Their feelings are valid and to be processed. Give yourself and them a break every now and then. You both have earned it!
Relationships are work. Communication is work. Cancer is work. So, you know together you both are going to have to work at it.
For the PartnersThe previous Sex 101 Series blog posts were centered on the cancer patient. This is primarily for the care giver, even though it would be helpful for you both to read all of Sex 101 together to understand each other's perspectives and ways to be supportive.
Care provider and lover. So, how can you manage both?
Knowledge is power.You need to go do your own set of research. Look at images of lumpectomies, mastectomies, and the effects of whatever treatment your partner is going to go through. And not just the fun happy images.
There are a number of women who are baring it all… so to speak. You need to see the drain tubes, the messy scars, and the images that make you uncomfortable. Go ahead and shock yourself now… because no matter how much you prepare, you are still going to be taken back when it happens to your partner.
It is not only important to know what is coming, but it is a way to help prepare your reaction to her body. She is going to go through every emotion when she is facing cancer, and she will worry about your thoughts of her. How you react to her body will affect her self-image. If you respond negatively, she is going to shut down her intimacy with you in the future. She may create a mental barrier that makes intimacy at a later time more challenging.
Separating your roles.You need to learn how to separate into two roles: care provider and lover.
As a care provider, you will be touching sexual parts in an nonsexual way. You will need to help with showering, bandages, and other ways which may make even make you grossed out. You will associate these things with pain and negative emotions.
As a lover, you will be rediscovering her body when she is ready. You will be nervous and fearful, because as a care provider you understood the pain. You will need to take steps together to rediscover her new you sexually.
Rediscovery.Not only has your partner changed because of cancer, so have you. You have been on the sidelines of something traumatic. You also need to process what has happened.
Do not expect to find everything attractive. Do not expect for her to respond sexually at any given moment. You may have to work on some of the same things she does, as a way to help reconnect your own desire.
A breast cancer survivor has to learn to re-love her body. You, as a breast cancer survivors partner, may need to learn to re-love her body too. Read the section on body image, HERE, but change the section Mirror Exercise to work on your mental perspective on your partner. Instead of looking in a mirror and repeating positives, you will have to reframe negative thoughts inside your mind.
You will need to begin to look at her new body in a sexual way. This may be hard, as society has reinforced an unrealistic idea of what women need to look like physically to be attractive. Remember, when you are with someone you should be attracted to the complete package, which is not tied to physical beauty. And scars can be sexy!
Learn touch therapy.Work together to rediscover her body. Read the section on Sensate Focusing (touch therapy), HERE. Take time to learn what feels bad and what feels good. Learn the type of touch that is arousing. Learn the areas of her body that feel good.
Be patient. She has gone through cancer. She is exhausted. She is sick. She hurts. She needs time and it may take time for her sexual desire or wants to return. The more she becomes comfortable with herself and has time to heal, the more she will have desire and sexual satisfaction. Working together, using Sensate Focusing, should benefit you too.
Communication is the key to a great sex life.Open communication between partners creates positive sexuality. Both of you may be confused or unsure. Both of you may be worried about what the other one thinks. Both of you may be waiting for the other to initiate sex. Both of you may be afraid to talk about sex. Both of you may be waiting for cues or hints to resume sex.
Find ways to talk about sex with each other, by reading HERE. Discuss your fears, hopes, and ways you hope to create a satisfying sex life. Be prepared to discuss how you feel, using positive words, and be prepared to re-discuss issues throughout the journey because things can change.
Sex and cancer
It is possible to have a fulfilling sex life during and post cancer as long as both people are willing to work on it. With good communication, a bit of effort, and some fun you may end up with a more satisfying sexual relationship than you had before cancer.