December 02, 2023

Sex and Cancer

Cancer may no longer be the C word, but ‘sex and cancer’ is still a barely audible, whispered topic. Docs keep their traps shut about sex and cancer as though they are mortified substitute teachers covering a sex ed. class and telling students to use the period to do their own homework.

I’ve spent five years traversing the country talking to twenty and thirty-something cancer patients. And while none of us had prostate cancer, many of us- men and women - suffered from lowered libido as treatment and surgery side effects. I also interviewed sex therapist Sage Bolte. I call her the Dr. Sue of the cancer world, and her graphic remedies and practical solutions are in my book.

Dana Jennings wrote After Cancer, The Echo of Desire in today’s New York Times Well-Blog. I want you to forget the fact that he is a 51-year-old prostate cancer patient. Substitute the word wife for boyfriend or girlfriend if you need to. Mad-lib up his writing to fit your own situation; his words could have come from the mouth of any testicular, lymphoma, or other kind of young adult patient with cancer. Here’s an excerpt:

“But, if there’s one thing you learn from prostate cancer, sexuality is not sex, a fine point that our over-sexed mass culture has managed to blur, if not obliterate. I still want to hold my wife’s hand and snuggle. And I’d be only too happy to carry her books home from school.

“So, whether you’re in the wistful grip of Lupron, or the throes of desire, I’ve realized that how well you cope with the after-effects of prostate cancer treatment boils down to how you want to define yourself as a man.

If you’re the kind of strutting rooster who grades himself solely on muscle mass, sexual gymnastics and the size of your Hummer, prostate cancer will send you spiraling into deep despair. If you treat this disease like a war, you’ll find yourself in a quagmire of depression that will get worse before it gets better.

“As much as I savor, and ache for, the robust life — having once been as fit, randy and Guinness-loving as any rugby player — prostate cancer and its treatment have imposed on me a certain necessary asceticism. “I’m more content to cocoon at home — curled up on the couch in the den like a woolly-bear caterpillar — with family, good friends, books and music. I drink less. And now, sex is temporarily fading. It often feels as if I’m somehow being purified in a crucible of cancer.

“That said, the mind still pants and leers, says, ‘Yeah, sex would be really, really nice.’ But with less testosterone, without that hopped-up, hormone-injected V8 engine, the body gets distracted. Then the mind wanders. And instead of sex, I suddenly crave a Reese’s peanut butter cup, or pine to listen to the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan slow-blues his way through “I Remember Clifford.” Or I want to watch Daffy Duck and Porky Pig lisp, stutter and sputter through “Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century.”

“So, yeah, my libido has pretty much run away from home. But my doctors tell me that it’ll ramble back some old day — the prodigal libido — once treatment ends. And I trust them.

“Meanwhile, wherever my sex drive has gotten to, I hope it’s having a damned good time.”

Have you ever spoken with your docs about cancer and sex? Did you, the young adult cancer patient, have to bring it up or did they? Were they able to answer your questions? Did the answers seem targeted to your age?

For more sex and cancer posts see Survey says…S-E-X!

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  1. aftercancernowwhat Says:
    December 2nd, 2008 at 7:15 PM

    I was at the Breast Cancer Network of Strength conference in November and there was a doctor there who specializes in sex. Specifically in difficulties and works alot with women. Of course I can’t remember his damn name but he was in California. His presentation was WWAAAAYYY too short but it was good nonetheless and the room was FULL. I think we were all trying to figure out how to do it again or find a little mojo. None of my doctors have ever mentioned it and my gyno and I had a brief conversation but I don’t think she really gets it. Good luck and if you learn the secret share it with the rest of us.

  2. Sex and the Cancer Patient | Chemobabe! Says:
    July 2nd, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    [...] Some cancer treatments shut down sexual organs and functioning for the long term. Women with cervical cancer, for instance, might have several inches of their cervix removed as a part of treatment. Sometimes, radiation in the cervix can leave adhesions that close the vaginal walls, making intercourse painful or impossible. Men with prostate cancer risk permanent erectile dysfunction in the wake of a prostatectomy. These are serious side effects and require special physical therapy or medications. Cure magazine wrote the best article I have found on the subject, although talking to patients, I find that there is still a lot that is left out. [...]

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