Talk allays questions about sex after cancer
Here in the U.S., at least, we’ve come a long way from a time when cancer was barely talked about, even behind closed doors. Now all kinds of awareness campaigns, fundraising events and support groups have made it easier to address issues that you or a loved one might face.
Amid all the openness, though, there remains a topic many are still reluctant to discuss. That topic, of course, is sex and it’s a pity because sex and sexuality are so integral to the healing process.
“There are approximately 14.5 million cancer survivors in this country and that number is expected to rise to 19 million by the year 2020,” said Alison Sachs, M.S.W., community outreach and patient support services director at Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage. “Sexuality is key to so many people’s feelings about themselves and their relationship, and it’s rarely talked about.”
To help remedy the situation, the center recently offered a talk on sex after cancer as part of their Integrative Oncology for Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors Series. Attendees came away with a lot of valuable information and in many cases, renewed hope.
Oncologists need more training
Medical students typically only receive a total of 11 hours of sex education, and most of it is HIV-related. This is hardly enough, said featured speaker Nina Grace Ruedas, a marriage and family therapist registered intern from the Desert Center for Sexuality Awareness.
The result is that oncologists don’t have the time or the training to talk about sex with their cancer patients. They aren’t able to develop a rapport so that the individual undergoing treatment feels they can ask certain questions.
Questions like: What if I suffer from terrible vaginal dryness as a result of treatments —- what lubricant can I use? How can I and my partner cope with a reconstructed breast and a nipple that no longer has feeling? Or in the case of men, what if I can’t get an erection in the wake of prostate cancer?
For cancer survivors, it’s often adjusting to a new normal. “It’s a process and many people need help with it,” Sachs said.
Fortunately the Lucy Curci Cancer Center at EMC recognizes this and plans to hold more talks along these lines. For instance, September is prostate cancer awareness month, and Ruedas will be back to conduct another presentation for survivors and their loved ones.
She’ll be accompanied by Dr. Winston Wilde, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is the only registered sex therapist in the Coachella Valley. He heads up the Desert Center for Sexuality Awareness.
Their program will include splitting the group up after a brief overview. The men will go to another room with Winston while their significant others — men or women — will gather with Ruedas. Each partner will have an opportunity to have more private conversations about how they’re feeling and what they might do to deal with any sex or sexuality issues between the couple. The presentation is open to the public.
Often with cancer, the focus is on survival, and talk about sex and sexuality is neglected. Ruedas advises cancer patients to empower themselves and go ahead and ask questions on these topics because it affects their overall well-being. The non-affected partner is also encouraged to communicate.
“So many times we can get lost in assumptions or maybe we’re avoiding sex because we’re too concerned our partner isn’t ready for sex after treatment when all the partner wants is to be touched and receive some type of affection,” she said.
There is much pleasure and comfort to be derived from sex and remembering you are still a sexual being even in the wake of a cancer diagnosis and/or treatment.
Try finding a professional who is comfortable talking about sex and ask the questions that are on your mind. Engage your partner in a dialogue too and include him or her in the conversations you have with professionals. These are all good starting points going forward.
For information on events and lectures at the Lucy Curci Cancer Center: emc.org and click Calendar in the menu bar, or Cancer Support Services at (760) 834-3798.