Assume nothing - Sex lives and intimacy after cancer
Meet Kate Moyle
Founder of @katemoyletherapy / Wellness Sessions podcast
Kate (She/Her) - White British
Sexual & Relationship Psychotherapist Accredited Member of COSRT & Registered by UKCP and EFS & ESSM Certified Psycho-Sexologist .
I am thoughtful, I am strong, I am curious.
Confusingly we seem to have an ongoing narrative that is imbedded into our thinking about sex and relationships - that sex should not change. But never has this clearly been more of a myth than when it comes to your sex live post cancer.
When you are given a cancer diagnosis, it can feel that everything changes in an instant.
Your ideas about yourself and your body, your daily life, your mortality and your relationships to others, and whilst we may not think that these things show up in sex, they can do in a variety of ways. Alongside this we see the physical, psychological and practical impact on intimacy and sex, and the side effects and impact of treatments, surgery and the cancer itself.
The entire process and experiences can feel completely out of your control and so when thinking about sex and intimacy take a new approach and perspective, which is to assume nothing.
Sex and intimacy after cancer if you are in a relationship -
You will be having your own thoughts and feelings about where you are at, but also be considering those of your partner.
As humans, one of our most applied techniques here is to internalise and try and work it out ourselves, whilst mind-reading what we think is going on for our partners. But this can get us stuck – stuck in ideas about what we think is going on, stuck in assumptions and stuck in not giving our partner a chance to voice their own view, as we think that we have already worked out what they are going to say.
"You may also be the couple who have never spoken about or had to speak about sex and so this can feel new and awkward. There is huge irony in the fact that often the person that is hardest to talk to about sex is the person that you are having it with."
The important thing to remember here is again not to assume. Your partner will be going through their own thoughts, feelings and anxieties – a lot of them likely focused on you and what might be going on in your head.
It can feel difficult to know where to start; so using a prompt like a podcast episode or article as a springboard to jump off which you can share with each other, can feel like a useful place to start as it takes the responsibility off you.
I personally really like Sex with Cancer, an online shop, an artwork and a public campaign exploring how people living with and beyond cancer can take agency over their own health and wellbeing.
Framing the conversation as a positive, and that it’s something you want to tackle together is also important. E.g. ‘Intercourse doesn’t feel comfortable or possible for me at the moment, but I miss feeling physically close to you – can we work out another way to do that?’ Or ‘The way that we usually have sex isn’t working for me any more due to pain/discomfort/anxiety/ exhaustion/etc, but I think I would feel comfortable doing X’ and recognising that it may just be different to your sexual and intimate life before, but that doesn’t have to mean the end of it.
Again, assuming nothing here will help you to clarify with each other what you would like to try, and this should be an ongoing conversation.
Sex and intimacy after cancer if you are single -
And if you are single or dating the same principle applies. So much misunderstanding comes from assumption rather than clarification, and the only way to clarify is by clear communication.
"It can feel really intimidating to talk to a new partner about sex, particularly if sex is something that currently feels complicated for you, or that might be something that you are having to relearn yourself post cancer."
Understanding that there are so many ways to experience intimacy, sensuality, sexuality and pleasure means that you are able to curiously explore and be open-minded to finding what works for you which is a key ingredient of any sex life.
Rediscovering yourself after cancer -
And finally, the don’t assume rule can also apply to yourself.
Get to know your body again, not just sexually but sensually head to toe. Explore your sensitivity to touch, texture, temperature, and allow yourself to connect to yourself sensually.
This also provides a form of sex self-education, adapting to your post-cancer self, and is a way of you determining what feels good and works for you and what doesn’t, before you bring in a partner.
This can equip you to feel clearer in the conversations discussed above, and will empower you to know where you are at right now.
All of the above is pushing back on one of the biggest and most problematic assumptions of all, that sex doesn’t change; when in reality like everything else in our lives it does, and we should not be assuming that’s a bad thing.
Listen to - 'The Sexual Wellness Sessions - Sex Lives and Cancer'
In this episode of The Sexual Wellness Sessions hosted by Psychosexual & Relationship Therapist Kate Moyle with guests Brian Lobel and Beth McCann from the organisation Sex With Cancer
They discuss the impact of cancer and cancer treatment on sex lives and relationships and why we don't talk enough about sex and cancer.
Who are Sex with Cancer?
A cancer diagnosis and treatment touch all areas of our lives; but sexual wellbeing is not a commonly discussed topic.
Often people describe feeling that there is a blind spot around the subject which adds to the challenge of questions, queries, and knowing where to turn for advice. This is exactly what Sex With Cancer as an organisation are trying to achieve. It was launched by people with cancer, for people with cancer for exactly this reason.
The impact of cancer for sufferers and partners is enormous, and can create changes in all areas of our lives physically, emotionally, in terms of self-image and confidence, relationships, psychologically, hormonally and in terms of our identity, and so it's not a surprise then that we see some of that reflected in our thinking, feeling and behaviours when it comes to sex.
Drawing on personal experience, and working with a steering group of advocates and experts in the worlds of sex, sexual health and cancer care, Sex with Cancer aims to develop into a permanent resource where people living with and beyond cancer can access information, practical solutions and products about sex without shame, and with an eye to pleasure, fun and connection.