What if I told you that recovering our sexuality after cancer treatment is not only possible, but also simple?
I’ve been working in sexuality long before I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer at age 36. Many of the people with cancer that I support ask, “How can I reconnect with my sexuality?” The way we feel about ourselves, our body confidence and our desire for intimacy all play a crucial role in our happiness and wellbeing—and they all take a hit from cancer treatments. It makes sense that we disconnect from ourselves due to treatments because we’re poked, prodded and stared at while experiencing pain, fatigue and so much more.
So, how can you start to feel better about your new and changed body, to feel desirable again and even begin to want intimacy and touch? The first step is to take small, day-to-day actions that increase those moments of feeling good. Here are a few practical ways to start:
- Write down a few things that make you feel good, like helping others, self-pleasure, baking or taking a bath. Try to include more of these things in your daily routine.
- Avoid media that might make you feel deficient or undesirable, such as Instagram or beauty commercials.
- Remember to grieve. You may be feeling the loss of many aspects of your life that you previously enjoyed. Share your struggles with friends, have a cry, chat with your partner about how you’re feeling or find a counsellor. You don’t need to do this alone.
- Take new photos of yourself and replace your old “pre-cancer” pics to avoid constant reminders of the past.
- Try to exercise and eat well. I know it’s hard, but it really can improve how we’re feeling day to day. Even just replacing one sugary snack or taking a short walk each day can make a difference.
These small actions might seem trivial but the effects on how we feel about ourselves can be gigantic.
Second, reintroduce pleasurable touch. Most of my clinical experience and training is in neurological rehabilitation—believe it or not, our main sex organ is in between our ears, not our legs! Often, the best way for us to reconnect with our sexuality is through simple brain training known as “neuroplasticity.”
Here’s how this works: Imagine your positive connection to your body is like a bicep. When we go to the gym, we exercise that muscle regularly and it gets bigger. When we don’t exercise, the bicep gets weaker and smaller.
This is exactly how it works for the neural connections in our brain and the pathways that connect our brain to touch, pleasure and arousal. When we disconnect from ourselves due to treatments, our sensations, desire and feelings of pleasure start to lessen. Essentially, we need to exercise our “pleasure pathways” over time to keep them strong. Here are some ideas:
- When you’re in bed and about to go to sleep, touch your body softly and slowly, just for the sake of it. You could even fall asleep with your hand resting over your vulva or chest. Having touch and connection on your body that is gentle and enjoyable shifts your neural wiring from thinking you’re an object for medical touch to being a body designed for pleasure and affection.
- Kiss your partner for the sake of it—without expectations that it will lead to sex.
- Ask your loved ones for hugs, snuggle with them to watch a film or try holding hands.
- Set aside some time for self-pleasure and self-touch sessions.
These may seem simple, but even a few minutes of gentle touch a day can result in neurological rewiring. Over time, your brain will remember that it enjoys touch and want it more.
You might be wondering, “But what about my sex life?”
If you’re considering having sex, you may feel like you have to do everything at once—that if you’re feeling sexual, it has to lead to intercourse or orgasms. It’s a lot of pressure, especially if you’re not ready for sex yet or feel nervous about your body. The good news, however, is that many sexual activities don’t necessarily need to lead to intercourse.
A great way to gently reconnect with your sexuality is to play the “two-minute game.” I learned this game from the sexuality educators Curious Creatures, but it’s also championed by other sexuality experts, including Georgie Wolf in her amazing dating book called “The Art of the Hook Up.” I’ve been playing this game long before my diagnosis, during treatments, and I still play it to this day. It’s been instrumental in my own recovery.
Set a timer for two minutes and take turns in receiving something you ask for (a foot massage, words of love, soft kisses on the neck, stupid dance performances, featherlight inner thigh touch – yum!). When the timer goes off, stop and allow the other person two minutes for what they want. It’s fun and it has a time-limit so if you get self-conscious, you know the timer will call things to halt. It’s an amazing way to learn about your changed body, to connect with people and baby-step yourself towards being sexual to the level that is right for you in the moment.
If you want sex but still feel shy or self-conscious about your changed body, that’s OK—you don’t need to have sex naked! You can wear clothes, put a lacy number on, wear a sarong around your waist, turn the lights down low or get intimate in positions that aren’t full-frontal such as the spoon or side-lying position.
It’s normal to find things tough, but don’t forget that if you’ve faced cancer, you can do anything. You can rediscover yourself and sexual pleasure after treatment—even if it takes time to get there. By working on these small steps, you may find that you feel more connected to your body and, in turn, experience pleasure once again.
Remember to go slow and be kind to yourself. You’ve got this.
Further resources on sexuality
- Sexuality & cancer resources: ConnectAble Therapies
- Two-minute game information: How a simple two minutes saved my sex during cancer treatments.
- YouTube channel on topics of intimacy, sex and cancer: ‘The Intimacy OT: On Sex & Intimacy After Cancer’
- A wonderful guide on dating, and how to navigate nervousness and body anxiety: The Art of the Hook Up
- Sexuality and self-development workshops, podcasts and more: Curious Creatures
Tess Devèze has been working in sexuality as a sexuality occupational therapist, certified somatic sexologist and sexuality workshop educator for nearing a decade. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and experiencing firsthand the impacts treatments have on our sexuality, Tess moved her focus to work in oncology to support other survivors on this oh-so-important and often ignored topic. You can find Tess at “ConnectAble Therapies.”