Intimacy Through and Beyond Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

JUNE 17, 2021

Usually, the word intimacy is a code word for sexuality or a sexual relationship, but that is not the real definition. The dictionary defines it as close familiarity or friendship. In truth, this is what we all long for though and during cancer. Of course, we cherish our physical or sexual connection with a beloved partner, but that is usually not at the top of the wish list during cancer treatment. We are longing to feel loved, cherished, understood, heard and comforted. Those feelings may come from a partner, but they can also be felt in other important relationships. True intimacy happens with other family members and with close friends.

Going through cancer, we understand that our need for intimacy is likely different than it is at other times.

As human beings, we always need this kind of connection. Going through the crisis of cancer, or any other crisis, we need it even more. Going through cancer, we understand that our need for intimacy is likely different than it is at other times. How can we best express our wishes and take care of ourselves and those whom we love?

The most important thing, as always, is honest and open communication. If you and your partner or your close friends/family can talk about your feelings, you can find ways to feel close. You can express the realities and boundaries of your yearning and disappointment that you may not be ready for your usual physical intimacy. There are other ways to express and honor your relationship, and the shared goal is to get through these months loving and supporting each other.

Let’s think first about a conversation with your partner. You may need to begin by acknowledging what has changed and what is temporarily lost. Since these could be tough conversations, consider scheduling time when you can both be fully present. This should not be the focus of your discussion as you want to talk about what is valuable and possible now. What is now most important to you both? Do you need quiet time together, soft conversation? With your partner, you can still have intimate skin-to-skin contact without sex. Plan times to hold each other when the possibility of sex is off the table. Snuggle and be physically close whenever you can: on the coach, before getting out of bed in the morning or before rolling over to sleep at night. If there are parts of your body that are vulnerable, say so. Hold hands when you are walking together.

Many people going through cancer treatment are protective of and less than fully happy with their bodies. Has your body been changed by surgery? Have you lost or gained weight? Have you lost your hair, including your body hair? If so, intimacy with your partner means being open and honest about these changes and your feelings about them. Try showering together; include soaping each other’s backs. Once you have toweled off, rub lotion over one another. Especially if your body has changed, include those parts and be explicit about what feels good or what is uncomfortable. If it seems impossible to, for example, rub lotion over a mastectomy scar, remember that the lotion can still go lots of other places. Foot, hand and back massages are all good.

Every day, ideally more than once a day, say: I love you. Acknowledge all that you are doing for each other, through the years and now, and say: thank you. When you cry, cry together.

Now let’s shift to conversations with other close family members or friends. You need their closeness, too, and these ideas will help both with them and with your partner. It might help to open the discussion like this: I too often feel alone going through cancer. I have been thinking of ways we could feel closer and hope you can think with me about this. I love and depend on you and know that my illness has been hard for you, too.

Try these with your friends and your partner:

  • Talk about how you met, fun times or trips you have had together.
  • While driving, tell each other a story about your childhood that you haven’t previously.
  • Look at pictures of your time together, especially look at old ones and talk about the memories.
  • Tell each other what is most difficult about cancer.
  • Tell each other what you are most frightened about.
  • Share a memory that you have never told anyone. Most of us have a high school escapade that we have never acknowledged.
  • Talk about the future. Make plans and look forward to better times.

Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your thoughts.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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