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Most people respond to a cancer diagnosis with just one objective: how to survive. But there’s more to life than just survival; thriving through cancer means reclaiming those parts of life that bring us joy – including sex!

About 10 years ago, Kris Carr created a film called “Crazy Sexy Cancer,” a documentary about her experiences fighting cancer. While most people would think cancer is anything but sexy, Kris’ approach is to refuse to allow cancer to limit her experiences. She makes certain that life goes on after a cancer diagnosis; for more and more people, surviving cancer may not mean living cancer-free, but living with cancer.

For anyone in a committed relationship, coping with cancer is a couple’s challenge. At a time when the support of a loving partner is more important than ever, physical intimacy may suddenly be unthinkable. Besides the effects of the disease, treatments for cancer like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are brutal and physical pain, exhaustion and nausea won’t make anyone feel sexy.

Even after treatment, how do you enjoy sex in a body that looks and feels very different than before? Women who lose one or both breasts to cancer, men who lose a testicle, have to focus their sense of sexuality on other aspects of themselves. Cancers of the cervix and prostate don’t change the outward appearance, but they affect sexual functioning. In the face of change, both partners have to adjust to “the new normal.”

Whether you are the survivor or the spouse, there are ways of keeping sex alive through cancer and beyond:

Accept the changes. Know that there will be changes in sensation and function, as well as possibly appearance. Be open about your feelings. Grieve the losses. Acknowledge that you may have different needs now, and that the healthy partner’s feelings and desires are important, too.

Focus on connection. Sex in a long-term relationship is not just about two bodies; it’s about the whole person. Think about the things that you cherish about each other that go beyond the physical, and let sex be an expression of those feelings. While some kinds of touch may be painful, other touch can be soothing; when tiredness is a problem, use some of the limited energy to connect with your partner in non-sexual ways

Explore. If you or your partner’s body is different, find out what has changed. Some areas may have lost sensation, while others may be uncomfortably sensitive. Find out what feels good, what creates arousal, what leads to orgasm. Notice when energy levels are highest, and what environmental cues or mental turn-ons lead to eroticism.

Experiment. Now is the time to throw away the “should.” It’s ok to use tools (toys) and enhancements when you need them. If the old positions don’t work, try new positions, and augment with pillows or other supports as needed. If intercourse isn’t possible, use other forms of stimulation. “If it feels good, do it!”

Get help. Look for books on cancer and sex. Many oncologists fail to address issues of sexual functioning – don’t be afraid to ask. Seek out other professionals: urologists, pelvic floor therapists, sex therapists.

Communicate. Talk to each other about what you want and need. Talk about how things are different, talk about what feels good and what doesn’t. True intimacy is about more than just sex – it requires openness and trust.

One final word. For people who are not partnered, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to mean living your life alone. You are more than a diagnosis, more than the sum of your body parts. If you want to experience life, love, sex, and intimacy, don’t be afraid to reach out for it. You are still YOU.

Elaine Wilco is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 20 years of experience. She maintains a private practice in Alpharetta focused on helping those with intimacy issues. Follow her at facebook.com/IntimacyAtlanta.

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