Coping: Intimacy Fact Sheet

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The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: January 22, 2002

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Breast Cancer, Intimacy and Sexuality

Because of the physical changes in the body, breast cancer can make a woman feel differently about herself. It may also affect feelings about relationships, particularly physical intimacy. These are very real-and, also, very natural feelings. Be attuned to how you are feeling and find ways to discuss these concerns with your partner, doctor, nurse, friend, another patient with breast cancer, or a counselor. It is important to understand and address these concerns so that they do not have a long-term effect on you and people close to you.

Will my relationship change?
Breast cancer brings on many stresses for both you and your partner. By sharing the experience and your feelings, you can develop an even closer, more open relationship than ever before. This takes communication and work, but it has been done over and over by many couples.

How will my partner feel?
Studies have shown that partners care most about their loved one being with them and a part of their lives. Some partners, however, will feel a loss about the change in your body. You may as well. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, which may include guilt or anger. As you want your partner to understand and accept the changes you are experiencing, you need to assure your partner that you accept their range of fears, concerns and feelings.

Will my sexual desire change?
It is possible that both of you may need to accept less sexual activity for a while and to find different ways of expressing intimacy. There are many physical reasons for a decrease in sexual desire. The most common physical reason is that treatment can reduce hormone levels. Others include nausea and discomfort related to chemotherapy.

Emotional issues can be a major factor as well. Because of the physical change in your body, your feelings about yourself may change and this can lead to a loss of desire. Becoming more comfortable and accepting of physical changes, and recognizing that you as a person have not changed, is key. Understanding how you and your partner are feeling, and accepting them, is part of the process toward finding different ways to feel close and loved. Many of the factors that contribute to a personal change in sexual desire resolve over time so that you can return to your prior level of desire and activity.

Will I feel depressed?
Depression may be a result of your cancer experience. Your feelings about yourself and your life can change significantly during your cancer experience. Depression can be treated with counseling and/or medication to help you regain a sense of control and enjoyment in your life. It is important to tell your doctor or nurse about how you feel so that the needed steps can be taken.

What can I do?
It is very important to talk with your partner so that you are both comfortable discussing the physical and emotional aspects throughout your cancer experience. Reading books, booklets, and information on the Internet, combined with attending seminars on the subject, can provide important information and a context for understanding your emotions. This material can also provide useful ways of addressing issues as they arise.

The University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center offers programs that cover this subject. We also offer a Counseling Service where you and/or your partner can comfortably discuss these issues with an experienced, caring professional. The American Cancer Society has an excellent booklet, Sexuality and Cancer, which is available for free by calling your local ACS.


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