In a 2018 article by Holly Tanner, she explains how managing a medical crisis such as a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for an individual. ‘Faced with choices about medical options, dealing with disruptions in work, home, and family life often leaves little energy left to consider sexual health and intimacy. Maintaining closeness, however, is often a goal within a partnership and can aid in sustaining a relationship through such a crisis.” Research shows that cancer treatment is disruptive to sexual health. Intimacy is a larger concept that may be fostered even when sexual activity is impaired or interrupted.
Prostate cancer treatment can change relational roles, finances, work-life, independence, and other factors including hormone levels. (1) Exhaustion (on the part of the patient and the caregiver), role changes, changes in libido, and performance anxiety can create further challenges. (1, 3, 4) Recovery of intimacy is possible, and reframing of sexual health may need to take place. Most importantly, these issues need to be talked about, as a renegotiation of intimacy may need to take place after a diagnosis or treatment of prostate cancer. (2)
If a patient brings up sexual health, or the practitioner encourages the conversation, many research-based suggestions can be provided to encourage recovery of intimacy including:
• Redefining sex to include other sexual practices beyond penetration, such as massage or touching, cuddling, talking, use of vibrators, medication, aids such as pumps (5)
• Participation in couples therapy to understand their partner’s needs, address loss, be educated about sexual function (7)
• Participation in “sensate focus” activities (developed by Masters & Johnson in the 1970s as “touch opportunities”) with appropriate guidance (6)
Holly continues to share that “Within the context of this information, there is an opportunity to refer the patient to a provider who specializes in sexual health and function. While some rehabilitation professionals are taking additional training to be able to provide a level of sexual health education and counseling, most pelvic health providers do not have the breadth and depth of training required to provide counseling techniques related to sexual health - we can, however, get the conversation started, which in the end may be most important.”
Courses of Interest:
1. Beck, A. M., Robinson, J. W., & Carlson, L. E. (2009, April). Sexual intimacy in heterosexual couples after prostate cancer treatment: What we know and what we still need to learn. In Urologic oncology: seminars and original investigations (Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 137-143). Elsevier.
2. Gilbert, E., Ussher, J. M., & Perz, J. (2010). Renegotiating sexuality and intimacy in the context of cancer: the experiences of carers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(4), 998-1009.
3. Hawkins, Y., Ussher, J., Gilbert, E., Perz, J., Sandoval, M., & Sundquist, K. (2009). Changes in sexuality and intimacy after the diagnosis and treatment of cancer: the experience of partners in a sexual relationship with a person with cancer. Cancer Nursing, 32(4), 271-280.
4. Higano, C. S. (2012). Sexuality and intimacy after definitive treatment and subsequent androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30(30), 3720-3725.
5. Ussher, J. M., Perz, J., Gilbert, E., Wong, W. T., & Hobbs, K. (2013). Renegotiating sex and intimacy after cancer: resisting the coital imperative. Cancer Nursing, 36(6), 454-462.
6. Weiner, L., Avery-Clark, C. (2017). Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy: The Illustrated Manual. Routledge, New York.
7. Wittmann, D., Carolan, M., Given, B., Skolarus, T. A., An, L., Palapattu, G., & Montie, J. E. (2014). Exploring the role of the partner in couples’ sexual recovery after surgery for prostate cancer. Supportive Care in Cancer, 22(9), 2509-2515.