Lung Cancer and Sexuality

How Will Lung Cancer Affect My Sex Life?

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How is sexuality affected by cancer and what can you do to enjoy this part of your being?. istockphoto.com

,Sexuality is an important part of what makes us human, but with lung cancer, the rigors of treatment can push physical intimacy to the back burner. You may be tired from treatments, or your loved one may feel uncomfortable broaching the subject as she focuses on concerns about your health. Despite its importance, healthcare professionals are often hesitant to bring up the subject of sex due to time constraints, consideration of privacy, and even their own comfort level in discussing sexuality.

But we know that sexuality affects quality of life and psychological well-being for those living with cancer. What are the issues that affect sexuality with lung cancer, and what can you do to foster sexual (and subsequently emotional) intimacy during cancer treatment?

Issues That Can Affect Sexuality If You Have Lung Cancer

Lung cancer can affect sexuality in many ways, both due to the disease itself and the side effects of treatment. Understanding some of the issues can help you address those that you have some control over, and help your loved one know how he or she can best support you. Some of these include:

Physical issues:

  • Changes in physical appearance – Your physical appearance (for example hair loss or weight changes) during treatment may make you feel less attractive or desirable as an intimate partner.
  • Symptoms of lung cancer – Common symptoms of lung cancer, such as a cough or shortness of breath, may worsen during sexual activity.
  • Fatigue – Fatigue is an almost universal concern with lung cancer. This can stem not only from the cancer itself and side effects of treatments but from the demands of doctors visits and traveling for treatment.
  • The presence of visitors – Time spent with family and friends is very important, but they may forget that you need time to be alone with your partner.

    Psychological issues:

    • Anxiety about your condition, your treatments or more.
    • Depression and grief – Studies show that mood has a significant effect on physical function.
    • Loneliness – You may feel emotionally separated from your loved one as you now face different challenges.
    • Role changes – Taking on the role of caregiver changes the dynamics of intimate relationships. A spouse may view a cancer patient more as a child than as a sexual partner, and feel uncomfortable with physical intimacy. You, the patient, can also be affected by assuming a role of accepting care more than giving it.
    • Guilt – Guilt due to the stigma of lung cancer, feeling that somehow an individual caused their disease and somehow deserves it, is common with lung cancer and can interfere with sexuality

    Tips for Enjoying Your Sexuality During Lung Cancer Treatment

    Talk openly with your loved one
    Share your needs and acknowledge one another's concerns. Anticipate that physical intimacy may need to be expressed in a different way as time goes on.

    Talk about how you can express your love if you are too fatigued for intercourse, or if coughing requires you to engage in quieter activities.

    Share intimate physical moments that don’t involve intercourse
    Be generous with touch. Hold hands during doctor’s visits. Sneak a kiss while the lab tech draws blood. Look back to the days when you first fell in love, and the special “little things” you did that drew you closer. There are many sexual activities that don't involve intercourse.

    Adapt according to your limitations
    Positions such as side-by-side may require less energy. Have the partner without cancer take the more active role. Plan to have sex when you are well-rested and not directly following a heavy meal.

    Give yourselves a special treat
    Think of things that make you feel good and attractive to each other. A new outfit, a pampering massage, a special cologne, even a new hair color (assuming you have hair) may add a little spice. This is important for both of you, as caregivers often feel guilty pampering themselves while caring for a loved one with cancer.

    Skip the booze
    Alcohol can interfere with a healthy sex life even if you don't have lung cancer. That said, a glass of red wine might add a sparkle to the moment.

    Set “visiting hours”

    One lung cancer survivor commented that trying to find time alone with her husband reminded her of when they had young children. Now they ask friends not to call or visit during “nap time.”

    Nurture your spiritual life
    An active spiritual life is associated with a healthier mood and greater emotional well-being, which in turn are linked with a more satisfying sex life with cancer. Spirituality means different things to different people -- organized religion, communing with nature, meditation, or the like.

    Most importantly, express your love daily in as many ways as you can. A relationship that is based on love and respect and that is continually nurtured is the best foundation for sexual intimacy during cancer treatment.

    Sources

    Gilbert, E. et al. Renegotiating Sexuality and Intimacy in the Context of Cancer: The Experiences of Carers. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2008. Dec 9. (Epub ahead of Print).

    Goodell, T. Sexuality in chronic lung disease. The Nursing Clinics of North America. 2007. 42(4):631-8; viii.

    Kotronoulas, G. et al. Nurses’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding provision of sexual health care in patients with cancer: critical review of the evidence. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2009. Jan 9. (Epub ahead of print).

    Lindau, S. et al. Communication about sexuality and intimacy in couples affected by lung cancer and their clinical-care providers. Psychooncology. 2011. 20(2):179-85.

    Shell, J. et al. The longitudinal effects of cancer treatment and sexuality in individuals with lung cancer. Oncology Nursing Forum. 2008. 35(1):73-9

    Shwartz, S. and J. Plawecki. Consequences of chemotherapy on the sexuality of patients with lung cancer. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2002. 6(4):212-6.

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