Sexual Intimacy Disrupted by Cancer

This article, in its entirety, can be found at dukehealth.org published by Duke Medicine News and Communications.

Cancer often leads to significant and long-term disruption in sexual function and intimacy, regardless of the type of cancer or how far along the patient is in the treatment plan, according to a new study from Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) appearing in the journal Psycho-Oncology.

“We discovered that having cancer — any kind of cancer — can alter a patient’s sex life,” said Kathryn Flynn, PhD, an assistant professor at the DCRI and the first author of the study. Researchers found that in some patients problems persisted long after treatment was over.

But researchers also found that changes in sexual function were not necessarily correlated with a decline in sexual satisfaction. “That’s an important distinction we feel needs to be recognized by researchers who are working on better ways to measure quality of life among people with cancer,” Flynn added.

Both men and women reported that loss of sexual desire was a problem. And while some patients in post-treatment groups reported that that sexual desire had returned, it never did for others.

Flynn says that one of the most interesting findings that may improve how sexual function is measured came from participants’ revelations about the complex relationships between sexual function and intimacy and satisfaction with their sex life.

Their experiences tended to fall into one of four categories:

  • Intimacy declined when sexual activity declined. Men and women both reported feeling isolated and sometimes pushing a partner away when sexual intercourse was not possible.
  • Intimacy became an alternative to sexual activity. Some participants found that emotional intimacy was an acceptable substitute for sexual activity and were satisfied with the closeness it brought about.
  • Intimacy became sexual activity. A minority of participants redefined sex so that the activities they could participate in (e.g., holding hands) were what they considered their sex life.
  • Increased intimacy led to improvement in sexual activity. A number of patients let changes in sexual function provide an opportunity to find additional means of sexual expression that actually expanded their pleasure with each other.

“There is no doubt that sexual function and intimacy are important aspects of quality of life for people with cancer and their partners,” says Flynn.

While I could not agree more with what Dr. Flynn says, I would go further and say that sexual function and intimacy are important aspects of quality of life for people and their partners period.  I have written many times on the topic of intimacy and what it entails and yet there is so much more to be said on it.  We’ve done a couple of polls already this year on intimacy – How Do You Practice Intimacy Outside the Bedroom as well as asking the question, What’s Your Biggest Roadblock to Sexual Intimacy?  But these four points that come from a study of cancer patients and survivors really put a fine point on the importance of intimacy.  I had the privilege of speaking to a group of women who call themselves Thrivers – not just surviving cancer, but thriving through it!  Their experiences and stories moved me deeply.  Later this week I will share with you some of the perspectives that they taught me.  Read it here!

In the meantime, give yourself a check up – ask yourself, “how’s my intimacy level with my lover?”