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People living with mesothelioma face many challenges. Patients must deal with their own mortality, difficult symptoms, treatment options, and limited activities. These challenges extend to sexual intimacy. This is a subject few people consider until they are living with cancer, especially an painful or incurable cancer like mesothelioma.
While it may seem like survival, treatment and symptom relief would be the most important factors for a cancer patient to consider, intimacy and relationships cannot be neglected. For a patient in a committed relationship, there several difficulties to confront, including changes in intimacy. If you have mesothelioma or asbestos-related cancer, and intimacy is an issue for you and your partner, talk to your doctor about your limitations. Also consider working with a therapist to help you and our partner cope.
Factors That Affect Intimacy
Living with a disease like mesothelioma is not simple. Living with cancer goes far beyond coping with discomfort and making treatment choices. Cancer patients also must face the fact that their life may be shorter than they expected. They must also live with diminished physical abilities. Cancer patients must also deal with increased dependence on others. This all takes place while they are experiencing symptoms and side effects of treatment and making important life decisions.
The most obvious thing that impacts sexual intimacy is a preoccupation with changes and challenges. It may seem inconsequential to worry about sex when making life-changing decisions. The stress of coping with this illness can severely affect libido. While changes may be psychological or physical, it is not uncommon for cancer patients to become uninterested in sex.
There are also real consequences of being sick, either from the disease, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or major surgery. Cancer patients often experience serious fatigue, pain, immobility, difficulty breathing, and abdominal discomfort, among other potential symptoms.
Finally, there may be emotional and psychological roadblocks to intimacy. Cancer patients often feel out of control as their body changes in ways they often don’t like. Patients may gain or lose weight, affecting body image and self-confidence. Relationship changes can also factor into intimate relationships. For example, cancer patients may be more dependent on their partner than they were before cancer.
Talking to Your Doctor about Sex
This is not always a comfortable conversation to have, but it is important for those in a loving relationship. Cancer can take a toll on relationships, and physical intimacy can be seriously impacted when one partner is sick. Aside from the potential embarrassment of talking to your doctor about sex, many patients are concerned their will downplay its importance. Patients may be concerned their doctor will tell them to focus on treatment and worry about intimacy later. However, intimacy can be a pressing issue, and that means your doctor will be happy to talk to you and offer guidance.
To have this discussion with your doctor, be prepared with questions you need answered. This will help the conversation go more smoothly. Ask about safety, potential limitations, and if treatments might affect your libido. You can ask if there are any precautions you should take. Also, if you experience sexual dysfunction caused by cancer treatments, ask about safe remedies. For young patients, asking how treatment will affect fertility is also important.
There are specialized cancer sex therapists who can help you and your partner come up with ways to maintain your intimacy. They have expertise in working with cancer patients and they can be helpful in guiding your questions and concerns. Speak with your oncology nurse or doctor about a referral to see them. Generally speaking, these are self pay referrals and not covered by insurance.
The Benefits of Intimacy
While sex may not be the same for you as before you got sick, if you are physically able to be intimate, there are some positive benefits. First, being sexual can restore a sense of normalcy to your life. Everything seems to change when you get sick. However, maintaining an intimate relationship may help you feel more grounded.
Sexual intimacy with a loving partner can also be a source of comfort for a patient with mesothelioma. One study of cancer patients found those most satisfied with their sex lives were able to enjoy closeness with a partner, even if that did not mean sexual intercourse. In other words, sexual dysfunction caused by cancer did not prevent these patients from enjoying being other forms of intimacy with their partners.
Your doctor can tell you if there are risks associated with sexual activity while living with cancer or going through treatments. Any risks may be dependent on individual health and treatments. One concern is radiation during treatment. Most types of radiation therapy do not make patients radioactive or put their partners at risk.
Pain is also a consideration, as is having sex after surgery. Being intimate may exacerbate pain, and physical activity of any kind can be risky after surgery. For younger patients, pregnancy may be a risk. If you are too ill to carry a child, or if you have decided not have children because of your illness, using contraceptives is important.
Cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, can weaken the immune system. You may be more susceptible to infections for some time after treatment. This is an important consideration if you are sexually active. Protecting yourself from sexually transmitted diseases is crucial. Talk to your doctor about your risks and what you need to know to stay safe.
Talking to Your Partner
One of the most important things to maintaining sexual intimacy is being open with your partner. Open communication will help you to overcome obstacles, make necessary changes to your sex, and maintain intimacy despite changes to your body and health. Talk to each other about your limitations and about your fears and worries.
If you are the cancer patient, keep your partner in the loop about your treatments and how they make you feel. If your partner has mesothelioma, be patient and understanding. Ask questions so you know how having cancer is making him or her feel about intimacy. Above all, always communicate, not only to maintain sexual intimacy, but to maintain a healthy and strong relationship.
Living with mesothelioma is not easy, but there are ways to make it less challenging. One is to face the issue of sexual intimacy head on. Doctors often wait for their patients to bring up the subject. Therefore, don’t be afraid to discuss the topic with your medical provider. Ask questions, be patient, make necessary changes, and talk to your partner. Let him or her help you and care for you, whether that means being intimate or holding off on sex for a while.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.