Strange Bedfellows: Cancer and Sex

Sallie Foley
Sallie Foley, director of the University of Michigan Center for Sexual Health answers questions and offers tips on how to improve intimacy.

For the Spring, 2007 issue of Thrive, we talked to Sallie Foley, director of the University of Michigan Center for Sexual Health, about the impact of cancer and ways to regain a sense of normalcy in the bedroom. Foley is the co-author of "Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self" and author of the "Modern Love" column in AARP The Magazine.

Q:   Sex is one of those things people just don't talk about. What do we need to know?

Everybody is born in a sexual body. It is with us literally from before we are born until we die. An illness can affect our sexual response, but usually it affects us temporarily during the immediate aftermath of diagnosis and treatment.

Q:   Before we discuss ways to rebound sexually after cancer treatment, can you talk a little bit about how our bodies work?

Absolutely. It's important to understand the sexual response cycle. We think of it in three parts.

First, desire:
Is a person interested in love making? Not everyone is.

If you are interested in getting into the bedroom, the second thing is arousal.

Arousal involves all the physiologic things that happen in a person's body related to sexual functioning.

And finally, orgasm:

reaching a certain sensory threshold that then results in the sensation of orgasm, which are muscular contractions that occur in the genital region.

Cancer can have an impact on each part of the sexual response cycle.

Q:   If I've had cancer, when should I expect to regain sexual function?

When I work with most people, they say it returns in six months to a year. We really ask that people give themselves a break psychologically and wait.

Q:   What can people do to help bring desire back?

There's a lot you can do (see Tips), but one of the most important things is to get touched regularly in ways that are pleasurable.

  • Get that from friends in terms of hugs and back rubs and hand holding.
  • Get that from your partner in terms of all-over sensory body massage.
  • Give that to yourself by standing in the shower longer and letting the water flow over your body. Let your hands trail over your body comfortably.
  • Also, consider a professional massage.

Q:   What if it's not a matter of desire and my body just isn't responding?

The one system that's often affected is the cardiovascular system. Medications can often temporarily compromise blood flow. For most people, once they're six months to a year past treatment, function will return. But if blood flow is impaired, the genitals don't become engorged. For men, what they experience is erectile difficulty; for women, the fancy term is "female sexual arousal disorder," but the real-life way to talk about it is, "I just don't lubricate, it's dry and it leads to painful sex." For women, one of our first lines of defense is to increase the use of lubrications. For men, we have medications that can help.

Q:   Q: Any last thoughts?

Keep an open mind about the different ways to experience sexual pleasure. If your usual routines have been disrupted, try to be open to new ways, try touching different parts of the body and try using other ways to express caring and enjoyment. Remember that sex is a quality-of-life issue.

 

Tips

  • Talk to your doctors. Sexuality is part of your health. If your doctors can't provide what you need, they will be able to help you find a referral to other professionals who can help.
  • Educate yourself. Listen to the full interview with Sallie Foley here. We've also posted a full list of resources.
  • Google wisely. The key to finding information on the Web is to search using the term "sexual health." Entering "sex" can melt your computer.
  • Strive for open communication. Talk to your partner about what you're feeling.
  • Don't romanticize the past. Be honest about the quality of your sex life before cancer. Address problems that may have been there before.
  • Exercise. It's not only the fountain of youth but the elixir of love.
  • Give yourself homework. Make a point of building a cozy nest in your home where you and your partner can regularly cuddle.
  • Go easy on yourself. Remind yourself that your treatment is temporarily disruptive, but that it will not last. Open your mind to ways to create a new sense of normalcy.
  • Dump your baggage. Work to accept yourself for who you are and where you are in your life. Clean out your brain -- and your house -- to make way for the new.
  • Gossip. It's good for you. Don't underestimate the value of strong friendships and hearty laughter.

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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2007