Disease and/or Chronic Pain and Sex
Many medical folks are not comfortable dealing with the sexual needs of those who are dealing with chronic pain, limitations on movement, long-term illnesses, cancer, and so on. It’s getting better, but the reality is those who are focused on dealing with treatment are probably not the best suited (or best trained) to deal with the sexual issues that accompany diseases and their treatments.
Not that it matters, right? It’s not like such patients have any interest in sex, or any sex drive – right? WRONG! Sexuality does not shut down because of physical problems and limitations. Neither does the desire to be sexual with one’s spouse does go away. In fact, some find sex to be an important quality of life issue that makes it easier to deal with their condition, or even helps them to overcome their condition. As Deb Stewart, a nurse and two-time breast cancer survivor, said “If I begin to think I’m less than whole, there’s nothing like having good sex with your husband to say, ‘I’m still alive. I can do it.‘”1
None of this should come as a surprise. Sex benefits our bodies by relieving pain and relaxing us. Sex also aids sleep. Mentally and emotionally, sex is very powerful, and can help us feel better. Sex also helps us feel less alone, more connected.
What about problems that affect or alter the sexual parts of our bodies – things like breast cancer or reproductive cancers (in both men and women)? Often there is fear on the part of the one dealing with the cancer that the changes will make them undesirable, or that they are now less “a woman” (or man, as the case may be). If this is not voiced, or if it’s not heard by the spouse, this can create significant problems. Many a man has half killed himself to “control” (read hide) his sex drive, out of love and respect, only to learn later that his bride took his lack of approaching her as confirmation that she was no longer sexual desirable. The key here is to be clear that you still find your spouse desirable, and are still very much interested in being sexual with them HOWEVER, you choose to defer to them because of their situation. Talk about it, and get a feel for where your spouse is. Some women, and many men, may want to be sexually pursued as it helps them feel desired; others will not feel this way. Figure out where s/he is, and adjust accordingly. Also, realise that where s/he is may change over the course of treatment.
Some patients want to provide some form of sex for their spouse even when limitations make it impossible for them to climax themselves – and maybe even if the act results in some discomfort. If this is the case, receiving such “one-sided sex” is actually a very loving act. Yes, it’s about your spouse who is going through treatment – but sometimes what is best for them is allowing them to do something for you. This is especially true if doing that something feels like “normal life” or shows them they can still bless you. Giving is better than receiving, so let her (him) give to you when s/he chooses to do so.
Many illnesses, and reproductive cancers in particular, can create a variety of sexual problems: pain that makes intercourse impossible, excessive vaginal dryness, lack of erection, limitations on positions or movement, and so on. If you are willing to think creatively, and are willing to expand your idea of what sex is, you can work through almost anything. Some of the links below will have ideas to help you with many of these issues.
If you are looking for a Christian place to discuss issues related sex and illness, The Marriage Bed forum has recently added sections for this. You will see these in the bottom half of this page. You can read without joining, but if you are already a member, or you do join to be able to post, you will need to add the necessary groups to your profile. Follow the directions found from the WHAT ARE YOU NOT SEEING?? link at the top of any page. If you and your bride have been through any of this, we would greatly appreciate you joining in and helping others.
Below are links to some on-line resources. PLEASE add to this on the comments.
Chronic Marriage A blog dedicate to helping couples with chronic illness build extraordinary marriages.
Cure Today – a large web site with a number of resources for a wide variety of conditions.
Finding Sensuality After Cancer – An article on the site above.
Live Strong – resource website for cancer.
Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home – Some of the sexual realities of cancer. From the American Cancer Society
You and Your Partner – An article on dealing with the loss of a breast.
Intimacy & Sexuality for Cancer Patients and their Partners – An excellent PDF. Includes some suggestions on useful products, and a good resource section. (A UK resource, but useful in any country.)
Macmillan cancer support – Many resources, including message boards. (UK based)
Why Intimacy and Sexuality Matter and What You Can Do to Help Your Patients – This is aimed at doctors, but has some good information about possible problems with various conditions.
Prostate cancer foundation website
1 Quote from an excellent article on ABC-news.
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