THE BLOG
12/21/2012 12:38 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex

It is time that the experience of sexuality of young adult cancer survivors begin to be discussed. Sexuality refers to how intimate individuals relate to each other. It is an important part of our personality that involves our sexual orientation, along with our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to sex. Sexuality is also directly related to our health and plays a role in our personal well-being. This applies to patients with chronic illness as well. Young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer, regardless of their diagnosis, gender or sexual orientation, may experience physical and/or psychological effects from the diagnosis of cancer and its treatment on their sexual health. There are numerous ways that these effects can manifest and they include but are not limited to: inability to orgasm, inability to maintain an erection, loss of libido, loss of hair and body image issues.

Cancer may also influence the patient/survivors gender role definition. Young adults may experience cancer and these effects at a time in life when people begin to learn how to date and be intimate with other individuals. They could also be present during a marriage/partnership. Despite these facts, sexuality is a topic that is hardly ever discussed between patients and their health care providers. Patients are often left having to figure things out on their own without the information they need.

This issue is very complex and is an area that is continuing to be researched by health care professionals. Researchers who have studied this topic suggest that there are steps that can be taken by patients to improve their sexual functioning and intimacy, despite their medical condition.

As an article in HuffPost's Generation Why focused on dating with cancer, I thought it would be important to touch upon one of the recommendations that researchers have provided that applies to patients and partners who are in an intimate relationship. This recommendation is that patients communicate with their partners. It sounds simple enough, but patients need to talk to their partners and discuss their feelings openly so that the other partner is aware of what is going on with them, how they feel and what their needs are. The reason for this is that confiding in one another can deepen a couple's intimacy level and may help them resolve concerns related to their sexual intimacy.

It is important for people at any age to learn to talk about sex, even though they may feel uncomfortable discussing the topic at first. Communication is especially important for all couples who have gone or are going through any type of change. This includes young adult cancer patients. A partner who has been diagnosed with cancer may be experiencing unanticipated physical and psychological effects which can cause their relationship needs to change. Communication is key to relationships adapting to these changes.

But what specifically are these researchers referring to as "communication"? There are at least two different kinds of communication: sexual and nonsexual. Nonsexual communication refers to listening and discussing general needs, feelings and thoughts. Sexual communication refers to listening and talking about sexual needs, thoughts and feelings with one's partner. It may be difficult for young adults to bring these issues up to their partners because the relationship may be new or because it is a difficult topic to discuss. However, in intimate relationships, it is important for both partners to maintain both of these forms of communication. When communicating, it is essential for the couple to discuss their individual pleasures and fears. If couples feel it is appropriate and/or if they are having a difficult time with this, they may wish to speak to a counselor to help them work through the relationship issues they may be experiencing.

So what else should young adult cancer patients be doing to make sure that they are communicating properly with their partner? It is important for patients to ask their partners what their sexual needs are. Their partner's needs are important as well. Along with deepening their knowledge of each other and their sexual needs, this can also increase the comfort, closeness and trust in the couple. It is important that when individuals are having these discussions that they make sure to choose the appropriate time and place.

What if the patient cannot talk? If a person is experiencing difficulty with their verbal communication, that individual may want to increase their nonverbal communication by expressing themselves through caresses and loving touches.

If you or someone you know would like more information on the topic of sexuality, please talk to your health care team. It is appropriate for patients to talk to their doctor about how sexual activity affects their physical health and about the side effects of the medications they are taking or the treatment that they had or are having. Do not be afraid to bring up issues around sexuality to your health care provider. As mentioned above, sexuality is directly related to our health and plays a role in our personal well-being. If you are experiencing difficulty with any physical or psychological issues related to your sexuality, it is important that you advocate for yourself to find the resources you need. This includes speaking to your health care team so that any necessary referrals can be made. Remember that sexuality is not just your ability to have intercourse, it is also about how you feel as a person and those are both important.

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