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Improving Intimate Relationships for Cancer Survivors

M. D. Anderson News Release 06/02/09

For the more than six million female cancer survivors living in the U.S. today, the celebration of continued life and love can beLoving Couple interrupted by cancer treatment’s side effects, including in the bedroom. Experts at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center offer survivors advice on how to get their relationships back on track.

“The majority of the women I see say that their partners are very understanding throughout their treatment,” said Mary K. Hughes, R.N., C.N.S., a clinical nurse specialist in M. D. Anderson’s Psychiatry Department. “However, some women who have completed their treatment, have trouble with intimacy and say that they would like to be more interested in sex.”

At some point in their life, many women experience trouble with intimacy that can be attributed to a wide variety of issues.

“Remember that regaining a powerful sexual relationship with your partner isn’t a race,” Hughes said. “It’s like a train ride – it’s a journey. Be creative, and do what feels natural. And who knows? The sex might end-up being better than ever.”

Maintaining a healthy relationship

Any couple’s ability to maintain a healthy relationship relies, in part, on their ability to interact, relate and be intimate as they make challenging and life-affirming transitions throughout life.

For the partner of a cancer patient, that means being an active part of their companion’s treatment.

“It is helpful if the partner can be there – go with the woman to her appointments and offer to drive her to chemotherapy,” Hughes said. “Being there is a crucial part of support. A woman is much more likely to feel confident and have a renewed interest in sex if she feels safe and supported.” 

“It’s important for partners to continue reassuring and complimenting her because a woman initially might have a hard time believing that her partner finds her attractive,” said Leslie R. Schover, Ph.D., a professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science and a licensed clinical psychologist.

Conquering body image together

Once a woman has been treated for cancer, she may develop a negative body image as a result of surgeries, or because of scarring. Although it is natural to have a difficult time accepting a change to the body, it is extremely important that women not project their own negative feelings onto their partner.

“What the woman needs to remember is that she is usually more upset about the changes to her body than her partner is,” Schover said.

“I have talked to a lot of partners, and the truth is that they are just happy that the woman they love is alive,” Hughes said. “They are not concerned about a scar or an imperfect breast. A woman shouldn’t think that her partner isn’t comfortable with her new body.”

Bringing life back into the bedroom

Some women who have undergone chemotherapy experience sexual issues that are physiological, as well as loss of libido.

“Without understanding how to avoid pain, many women lose interest in sex because it is traumatic and painful,” Schover said.

“Partners shouldn’t be afraid to approach the woman sexually or express their desire,” Hughes said.

While loss of libido can be a difficult issue for cancer survivors to manage, open lines of communication and patience can make a hard transition much easier.

“Women who are having trouble with their level of desire need to look at making love like sitting down to a lovely meal without being particularly hungry,” Hughes said. “If you start to eat and really focus on enjoying it, it becomes a wonderful meal.”

Expert tips on intimacy: 

  • Build self esteem by doing things that are good for your body – like eating healthy food, drinking plenty of water, exercising and making an effort to look your best
  • Wear a tank top or a camisole when making love if it makes you feel more sexual, or invest in sexy lingerie that hides the part of the body that causes insecurity
  • Engage in activities that will bring you closer together physically and that can generate desire, like holding hands, kissing or cuddling
  • Schedule sexual encounters at times that you have more energy and make a commitment to your “special time”
  • Try making love in different positions that might make you feel more comfortable about your body
  • Invest in a water-based lubricant and an over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer in the case of dryness. Incorporate the lubricant into your sexual routine, and use the moisturizer a few times a week independently of intimate activity.

For additional information, visit Focused on Health.

M. D. Anderson expert available for interview:

Leslie R. Schover, Ph.D., Professor of Behavioral Science

Schover is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in sexual problems and infertility-related distress after cancer. In addition to having a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she has completed a postdoctoral fellowship in sex therapy and sex research. She is the author of 85 peer-reviewed journal articles, 27 book chapters, and four books, as well as patient education booklets published by the American Cancer Society. Schover’s research interests include developing interventions to ameliorate sexual problems and distress about infertility after cancer, as well as understanding the role of reproductive health problems after cancer in overall quality of life.


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center