Can couples actually experience a positive impact of cancer on their sexuality?
I truly appreciate the benefit of insights gained from working with cancer survivors in my work with other couples who are experiencing distress about their sexual function.
Cancer treatments directly impact the body and often affect specific physical aspects of sexual function, but also impact on sexuality indirectly, via the emotional impact of confronting the loss of enjoyment of a relatively effortless sex life, as it may have been experienced before cancer. Grief is a normal reaction to this loss and the problem is there is no real "fix" on an existential level, despite efforts to regain pre-treatment physical function, which may be disappointing and ultimately futile.
In the end, we may discover the best path forward is to let go of an ideal that is no longer useful and proceed with what we have in the present, rather than wish for something we are not capable of. This is the time for letting go of unhelpful performance-based or intercourse centered sexual scripts in favor of flexibility and adaptation, as well as our definitions of "femininity" or "masculinity".
Cancer survivors and their partners can indeed continue to enjoy truly meaningful sexual connection, provided there is open communication and willingness to modify or throw out the old, and go with the flow instead of trying to control what we can't, and to try out new strategies.
If we are willing to redefine what "having sex" and being sexually "functional" means, then we open ourselves to new experiences that can allow for something called post-traumatic growth. If we had a sexual life without such challenges we might not grow as much as individuals, or in our relationships. I think of this often when my other clients experience distress over concerns about being sexually "adeqate" in a variety of other contexts, including normal aging.