Lung Cancer and Sexuality

sick husband in hospital bed with wife comforting him
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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. Luckily, there are things you can do to foster sexual and emotional intimacy during cancer treatment.

Issues That Can Affect Sexuality

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

Cancer can certainly change you physically in many ways, which, in turn, can affect how you feel sexually. Some of these include:

  • 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 cancer itself and side effects of treatments, but also 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

Psychological issues also play a large role in sexuality and are common in people living with cancer, whether early stage or late stage. These can include:

  • Anxiety: Whether it's about your condition, your treatments or something else, it's taking a toll.
  • 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

While looking at the physical and emotional changes associated with cancer, not to speak of the fatigue and much more, it can feel discouraging. Yet sometimes simple measures can have large effects, especially when combined.

Talk Openly

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. If you've been hoping for a jumpstart to your sex life, talking about non-intercourse forms of sexuality may feel like moving backward. Yet it's often precisely these types of measures that can provide the jump start you hope for.

Adapt According to Your Limitations

Positions such as side-by-side may require less energy. Have the partner without cancer take a 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. It may be organized religion, communing with nature, meditation, or the like.

A Word From Verywell

Most importantly, to maintain (or regain) intimacy during cancer treatment it's important to express your love daily in as many ways as you can. While many people want this to be spontaneous, you may need to actually consciously think of ways that you can express your love, or even write down ideas on a list. Just as non-physical forms of intimacy can foster physical intimacy, going through the motions and "planning" spontaneous expressions of love can often result in these expressions becoming spontaneous.

A relationship that is based on love and respect and that is continually nurtured is the best foundation for sexual intimacy during cancer treatment.

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