By: Anne Katz PhD
Sexuality is much more than having sex even though many people think only about sexual intercourse when they hear the word. Sexuality is sometimes equated with intimacy, but in reality, sexuality is just one way that we connect with a spouse or partner we love (the true meaning of intimacy). Our sexuality encompasses how we see ourselves as men and women, who we are attracted to emotionally and physically, what turns us on (eroticism), our thoughts and fantasies, and yes, also what we do when we are sexually active, either alone or with a partner. Our sexuality is connected to our image of ourselves and it changes over the years as we age and face threats from illness and disability and, eventually, the end of life.
Am I still a sexual being?
Illness can affect our sexuality in many different ways. The side effects of treatments for many diseases, including cancer, can cause fatigue. This is often identified as the number one obstacle to sexual activity. Other symptoms of illness such as pain can also affect our interest in being sexually active. But there are other perhaps more subtle issues that impact how we feel about ourselves and, in turn, our desire to be sexual with a partner or alone, or if we even see ourselves as sexual beings. Think about surgery that removes a part of the body that identifies us as female or male. Many women state that after breast cancer and removal of a breast (mastectomy), they no longer feel like a woman; this affects their willingness to appear naked in front of a partner. Medications taken to control advanced prostate cancer can decrease a man’s sexual desire. Men in this situation often forget to express their love for their partner in a physical way, no longer touching them, kissing them, or even holding hands. This loss of physical contact often results in two lonely people. Humans have a basic need for touch; without that connection, we can end up feeling very lonely.
Just talk about it!
Communication lies at the heart of sexuality. Talk to your partner about what you are feeling, how you feel about your body, and what you want in terms of touch. Ask how you can meet your partner’s needs for touch and affection. The most important thing you can do is to express yourself in words. Non-verbal communication and not talking are open to misinterpretation and can lead to hurt feelings. Our sexuality changes with age and time and illness; we may not feel the same way about our bodies or our partner’s body that we did 20, 30 or more years ago. That does not mean we feel worse – with age comes acceptance for many of us – but we do need to let go of what was, and look at what is and what is possible.
The role of health care providers
Health care providers should be asking about changes to sexuality because of illness or treatment, but they often don’t. They may be reluctant to bring up what they see as a sensitive topic and think that if it’s important to the patient, then he or she will ask about it. This is not good. Patients often wait to see if their health care provider asks about something and if they don’t, they think that it’s not important. This results in a silence and leaves the impression that sexuality is a taboo topic.
Some health care providers are afraid that they won’t know the answer to a question about sexuality because nursing and medical schools don’t provide much in the way of education on this topic. And some health care providers appear to be too busy to talk about the more emotional aspects of living with illness. This is a great pity as sexuality is important to all of us – patients, partners, health care providers. It’s an important aspect of quality of life from adolescence to old age, in health and at the end of life when touch and love are so important.
Ask for a referral
If you want to talk about this, just do it! Tell your health care provider that you want to talk about changes in your body or your relationship or your sex life! Ask for a referral to a counselor or sexuality counselor or therapist or social worker. It may take a bit of work to get the help you need, but there is help.
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