Beyond Sex: How to Keep Intimacy Strong

By Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

One side effect of chemotherapy they don’t tell you about? How it affects relationships. As the spouse of someone undergoing chemo, you may look at your husband or wife and wonder “who is this person?” because he or she doesn’t look or act like the person you married anymore. Hair loss, weight gain or loss, fatigue, low libido and mood swings can sometimes add up to a person who you don’t feel like wooing into bed.

But don’t add guilt to the equation. Every relationship—even those not dealing with chemotherapy—can suffer from occasional drops in intimacy. The important thing is to not let these temporary changes come between you as a couple, and learn how to work through this time as a team. In fact, many couples find that going through a cancer diagnosis and the treatment process brings them closer than ever.

So how can you keep the spark with your spouse? Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and a two-time breast cancer survivor, shares some of the tips that worked for her and her husband. Just try to…

  • Ask her. If you want to be intimate with your wife, let her know! Some men are afraid to ask while their wives undergo chemo for fear that they’re being insensitive or too demanding. Yet even if your wife declines due to fatigue or other treatment side effects, she will appreciate knowing you are still attracted to her and want to be intimate!
  • Talk about your feelings. The conventional wisdom is true: Communication is one of the most important aspects to a relationship. If you’ve found that some of the changes your husband has undergone during treatment have influenced your libido, try to find an understanding and constructive way of discussing them. Say, for example, your husband has been fatigued and stressed during treatment, you might say: “It’s hard for me to see you so worn out lately, let’s do something fun tonight that will give both of us a break!” It can sometimes help your partner just to know that he’s not alone on the cancer journey.
  • Keep your focus off the physical. Physical changes like hair loss should not influence how much you love your partner. Remember, as couples age, both partners will experience physical changes whether from cancer treatment or not.
  • Find different forms of intimacy. You can still have intimacy with your husband or wife, even if sex isn’t currently feasible. Hugging, kissing, snuggling together on the couch, even holding hands can help establish a physical bond with your spouse. Remember: It’s the little things that count!

  For Caregivers

Help Your Loved One With 'Chemo Brain'
8 Ways to Show Your Love
What Not to Say to Someone Having Chemo
Make Long-Distance Caregiving Work
Delight a Loved One Going Through Chemo
Get Your Loved One to Eat During Chemo
Keep Intimacy Strong

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